The Penn State Game That Made College Football History With A Staggering Nine Overtimes

University of Pittsburgh athletic director Tom Hamilton once famously said, via ESPN, that in sports, a tie is like kissing your sister. With the exception of Major League Soccer (MLS), which allows ties (or more accurately, draws, as they're called) in regular-season games, other major sports in the U.S. — baseball, football, and basketball — do not allow ties either at the professional level or the college level. One exception seems to be professional football, however. As the NFL notes on its website, that league allows for a single 10-minute overtime, after which the game is considered a tie. The college game, however, is different. The rules are complicated, but long story short, there are no ties in NCAA-sanctioned college football games, according to Sports Illustrated. The game will go on until one team or the other has a lead when the clock ticks down to zero.

This downside to this lack of ties in college games became apparent back in 2021, when Penn State and Illinois played a game that went to nine overtimes. As ESPN noted, the game lasted four hours and 11 minutes, and ended with a Fighting Illini victory.

The NCAA Tweaks The Rules

As mentioned previously, while soccer fans accept ties as a part of life (at least, apart from tournaments, when someone has to win), other major American sports are keen to avoid them if at all possible. Baseball has extra innings, football and basketball both have overtime periods.

Prior to the 2021 season, according to the NCAA's website, the agency that governs college sports decided to make some rule changes to its overtime process in football. To make a long story short, the new rule called for the third (and subsequent) overtime periods to consist solely of two-point conversion attempts. Ideally, that would be the gridiron football equivalent of penalty kicks in association football (soccer) — a quick-and-easy way to give both teams a chance at winning the game, quickly and decisively. At least, that's how it should work in theory. In practice, however, the league quickly found out that what looks good on paper doesn't always look good on the field, as the Fighting Illini and Nittany Lions failed to end the game until nine overtime periods had passed.

Illinois and Penn State Go Long

If the NCAA was keen to streamline the overtime process in order to limit the number of overtimes a game can go, it seems that the University of Illinois' Fighting Illini and Penn State's Nittany Lions failed to get the memo. On October 23, 2021, according to ESPN, they met in College Station, Pennsylvania, for what would go down in history as the longest NCAA football game up until that point.

After regulation, the game was tied 10-10. During the first and second overtimes, the teams exchanged field goals, resulting in ties both times. The third overtime began, each team alternating attempts at two-point conversions from the 3-yard line. Neither team managed to put the ball in the end zone; not in the third overtime, nor the fourth ... nor the eighth. Finally, in the ninth overtime, the Illini completed a pass that sealed the win. The players jumped on each other in celebration, in what ESPN called a "surprising energy" for a game that was in its fifth hour when it ended. "I actually cried. It just felt good," said Casey Wilson, the Illinois receiver who caught the winning pass.