Three yards.

That’s all Penn State needed to move on from this disaster of a day and keep its Big Ten title hopes alive heading into a showdown in Columbus next week. But for a second straight year, the Nittany Lions suffered a crushing overtime defeat the week before playing Ohio State.

And this one — against an Illinois team that had lost 4 straight against Power 5 programs and is one of the worst teams in the Big Ten — was especially aggravating for a fan base that keeps getting its hopes up for a breakthrough, only to be let down in crushing fashion.

All because of 3 yards.

Penn State’s 20-18 loss to Illinois in 9 overtimes (that’s not a typo) was memorable in all the wrong ways, as it set the record for longest game in college football history and also effectively eliminated the No. 7 Nittany Lions (5-2, 2-2) from winning the Big Ten and reaching the College Football Playoff.

Because of the new overtime rules, after the second OT the teams get one chance at a 2-point conversion rather than starting at the 25. Five times in a row, Penn State had a chance to win the game by gaining 3 yards. And 5 times in a row, it failed. The Nittany Lions finally broke through in the 8th overtime, but they came up empty in the 9th to seal it.

Think about how far Penn State has fallen in such a short time. Just a few weeks ago, this was a team ranked 4th in the country and led the No. 3 team in the country by 14 in its home stadium. On Saturday, it couldn’t get 3 yards on 5 straight plays against a bottom-feeder in the Big Ten.

It was actually a little surprising that this game even got that far considering the way Penn State struggled all day. The Nittany Lions couldn’t stop the run, even though they knew that’s all Illinois could do offensively. Time and time again, Chase Brown and Josh McCray rumbled through that Penn State front and into the second and third level. Usually it was the left side of the line that paved the way for the duo to combine for 365 yards on 57 carries. Again, that’s not a typo.

It was obvious that Penn State wanted to limit Sean Clifford after the QB was knocked out of the last game against Iowa. The Nittany Lions didn’t attempt a pass on the first 2 drives, and Clifford finished the first half with just 9. The problem, as it has been all season, is that Penn State couldn’t run the ball. The B1G’s No. 11 rush offense couldn’t get Keyvone Lee going, it couldn’t get Noah Cain going and it couldn’t get John Lovett going. That meant Clifford, who was clearly limited, had to gut through the pain and try to lead a one-dimensional offense. Clifford and star wideout Jahan Dotson were off all day. Late in the fourth quarter, Clifford was just 5 of 12 for 68 yards when targeting Dotson.

That explains why Penn State managed a total of only 3 points in the final 3 quarters and also settled for field goals in the first 2 overtimes. It also explains how Penn State managed only 227 total yards against a team that let up nearly 500 to offensively challenged Wisconsin last week. If that’s how the offense is going to function against an Ohio State team with the No. 1 offense in the country, good luck.

So, maybe this was just Illinois putting Penn State out of its misery. With PJ Mustipher — one of Penn State’s top players, regardless of position — out for the season, the Nittany Lions were surely weaker up front. There’s no telling what Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson will do next week if Brown and McCray had that much success and often seemed to make it look easy.

But you never know. Maybe Penn State could have made some adjustments between now and then. Maybe Ohio State will have an off day, like against Oregon. But now as far as Penn State is concerned, it doesn’t matter.

Has any fan base been through more crushing defeats than Penn State’s? There was the overtime loss last year against Indiana with Michael Penix Jr. diving for the 2-point conversion, the 1-point losses against Ohio State in 2017 and 2018 and the blown 14-point, fourth-quarter lead against USC in the Rose Bowl in 2016 (after getting left out of the CFP despite winning the Big Ten). This program is always in the mix, and it always seems to come crashing down in dramatic fashion.

On and on it goes for this fan base. And this one was just completely unexpected. It was supposed to be a tune-up game, maybe refine a few things and focus in after a bye week and not exert too much energy before next week’s showdown at No. 5 Ohio State.

Instead, it was just another heartbreaking Saturday for a program that just can’t break through.