Champaign, Ill. — Late in the fourth quarter Saturday, Illinois kicker David Reisner lined up for a 50-yard field goal and watched as a hard wind pushed it wide left of the target.
The sophomore said he never would have made the next one if he hadn’t missed the first.
Reisner adjusted for the wind and, with eight seconds left in the game, hit from 36 yards for a 16-14 win over Penn State.
“I would have thought differently if we didn’t have that 50-yarder,” Reisner said. “That was a (long) kick and you could really see the wind take it.”
Reisner’s winner finished off the seven-play, 54-yard drive that backup quarterback Reilly O’Toole led Illinois on.
They made for two of the least likely heroes for a team fighting to take the pressure off coach Tim Beckman — the kicker on an Illinois team (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) that almost never tries field goals, and the backup quarterback who seldom plays unless the starter is hurt. O’Toole came on for an ineffective Wes Lunt in the second quarter.
Reisner made three field goals Saturday, one more than Illinois had made all season.
Before the last one, Beckman gave his kicker a vote of confidence.
“I looked him in the eye, and told him ‘This is easy for you,’ ” Beckman said.
On the opposite side of the stadium outside the Penn State (6-5, 2-5) locker room, stunned coaches and players struggled to explain how this one got away. There was a botched first-quarter field goal attempt. A block kickoff return that led to three Illinois points. And a decision late in the game to punt to the Illini on a fourth-and-1, giving them the ball for the decisive drive.
“We have probably been asking for this all year long the way we have been playing and it caught up to us today,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw for an 18-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin to put Penn State up 7-0 early. But Hackenberg struggled the rest of the day. He finished 8-of-16 for 93 yards and the touchdown.
Mike Dudek had 11 catches for 115 yards for Illinois.
Penn State running back Akeel Lynch carried the ball 28 times for 137 yards and a 47-yard touchdown.
Lunt, just seven weeks removed from a broken leg, didn’t look quite right in his second game back from the injury. The normally strong-armed quarterback didn’t throw deep much and, when he did, didn’t have the touch that made him one of the country’s most dangerous quarterbacks early this season.
O’Toole, running and mostly passing short, moved Illinois’ offense down the field fast. And when he hit tight end Matt LaCosse on the 1-yard, game-tying touchdown at the end of the second quarter, it erased a half of offensive frustrations.
O’Toole’s fourth-quarter drive was his most important, but he said afterward he didn’t realize just how late it was.
I wasn’t worried,” he said. “Honestly, I thought there was more time on the clock so I was getting ready for a big defensive stop, but after I saw there were only 8 seconds left, I was pretty pumped.”
Franklin said he decided to punt to the Illini instead of going for it on fourth-and-1 at the Penn State 41 with just under 2 minutes to play because he believed his defense could stop Illinois.
“You punt the ball, you make them go earn it,” he said. “If we go for it on fourth and 1, we don’t get it, everybody’s in here right now talking about how stupid I am.”
Illinois took the lead after its kickoff to open the half was knocked down by the wind, falling down at about the Penn State 20. Illinois’ Clayton Fejdelem recovered at the Nittany Lion 28.
Franklin thought the play was a fluke, but Beckman said special teams coach Tim Salem called for the high kick with the unpredictable wind in mind.
“I hadn’t seen that many times in my life,” Beckman said.
Illinois has one game left, next Saturday at Northwestern, to try to get a sixth win and a potential bowl trip. Penn State closes the regular season at home against Michigan State.