A spirited O'Brien later disputed any suggestion that his team was "fortunate."
"I don't feel fortunate," he said. "Fortunate is when you hit the lottery, you know what I mean? Like, 'I've won $50 million, I'm fortunate to win the lottery.' To me, we went out there and did what we had to do to win the football game. Give the kids here at Penn State a lot of credit."
As for whether it was an "ugly win," O'Brien replied: "We cherish every win. There is no ugly win."
Some blue-clad diehards among the 95,131 who sat in chilly temperatures and some rain might have thought otherwise. Despite 201 yards rushing by former Winslow Township High star Bill Belton, the Penn State offense scored on just three of eight regulation trips into Illinois territory.
The next-to-last drive could have been the crusher. Belton, trying to stretch the ball toward the goal line, fumbled it away at the 2. Illinois took over with 3 minutes, 23 seconds to play and the Nittany Lions trailing, 17-14, and out of timeouts.
"I shouldn't have reached the ball out," Belton said. "I was being too greedy. That was my fault."
But the Fighting Illini (3-5, 0-4), who lost their 18th consecutive Big Ten game, couldn't finish, despite the best efforts of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who threw for 321 yards. Scheelhaase threw an incomplete pass on first down, stopping the clock. By the time the Illini punted the ball to Penn State at their own 49, 1:44 remained.
Illinois even called a timeout - with the clock running - at one point during the Lions drive, which ended with Sam Ficken's tying 35-yard field goal with 41 seconds left in regulation.
But those weren't the only errors for the Fighting Illini. A 39-yard first-quarter touchdown pass was called back by a chop-block penalty. Trailing by 14-3, they went for it on fourth and 1 from the Penn State 4 early in the fourth quarter - and did not succeed - when a field goal would have loomed large.
Penn State, however, also had a case of the boo-boos, including 11 penalties. A tripping call against guard John Urschel pushed them back on a drive in which Ficken missed a field-goal try. An unsportsmanlike-conduct flag against center Ty Howle drove them out of Ficken's range.
Even in overtime, Belton's apparent 5-yard touchdown run was erased by a holding call, although Hackenberg and Carter came back with a score on the next play.
"It's frustrating understanding that we really had a good chance to put points on the board a lot in this game and we didn't do it," Hackenberg said. "We've got to finish in those types of situations."
Penn State scored on its first two possessions - Belton's 5-yard run and a 9-yard scramble by Hackenberg. So an easy victory appeared likely, but the Lions had to battle every minute to pull it out.