Football Knocks off Illinois to Open Big Ten Play
The Penn State Nittany Lions (3-2, 1-0 Big Ten) defeated Illinois (2-3, 0-1 Big Ten) by a 35-7 margin Saturday afternoon in Champaign, giving head coach Bill O’Brien his first Big Ten win. This is the 12th time in 20 years that the Nittany Lions open the Big Ten season on the road.
Penn State capitalized on Illinois miscues in the first quarter to open up a commanding 14-0 lead after one quarter of play. After Penn State went three-and-out on its first possession, senior linebacker Michael Mauti forced a fumble after a big hit on a Penn State punt.
Failing to score a touchdown after receiving great field position, an Illinois running into the kicker penalty negated the 24 yard field goal by Sam Ficken, setting up a first down for Penn State inside the Illinois 5 yard line. Two plays later, running back Zach Zwinak capped off the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run, giving the Nittany Lions a 7-0 lead.
Senior quarterback Matt McGloin, who finished the day 18-30 for 211 yards and one passing touchdown, score one of his two rushing touchdowns on a 1-yard run that increased Penn State’s lead to 14-0.
Then late in the 2nd quarter, McGloin completed a 21-yard play action pass to tight end Matt Lehman for Penn State's third touchdown, and a 21-0 lead. On the play, Illinois defensive back Earnest Thomas III was ejected from the game for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Lehman. Lehman would return and finish with 5 catches for 70 yards.
As Illinois was driving in the closing seconds of the first half, trying to put some points on the board, Illini head coach Tim Beckman elected to go for it on fourth and goal.
That play backfired, as Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse's pass was intercepted by Mauti. Mauti rumbled 99 yards down the field, and was ruled down at the Illinois 1-yard line with one second remaining in the first half. O’Brien opted for a last second field goal attempt, but Sam Ficken’s kick was blocked.
Mauti’s interception broke the Penn State record for an interception return. The previous was 98 yards by Wayne Berfield at Boston University in 1958. Mauti would add another interception in the closing seconds of third quarter and finished with 6 tackles and 0.5 sacks.
"Mauti is one hell of a player," senior cornerback Stephon Morris said. "We expect him to make those kinds of plays. That's normal to us."
"He's a guy who doesn't have a lot of problems backing things up,” said O’Brien. “He plays extremely hard. He's an instinctive player and he's a member of a really strong senior class."
Penn State forced three turnovers Saturday, giving the Lions 11 in their last 5 games. The Nittany Lions out-gained Illinois 384-366 in the game, with 23-17 edge in 1st downs and 32:55 in time of possession to 27:05 for the Illini. Illinois was 4-15 on third downs in the game.
Penn State has now out-scored their opposition, 49-0 in the first quarter this season, and 76-9 in the first half, allowing only three field goals and no touchdowns. The Nittany Lions have scored at least one touchdown in the first quarter of all five games including today at Illinois.
O’Brien is pleased with the way his defense has been playing
"They play so hard...they're coached very well, they love to play,” O’Brien said. “They're doing a great job."
Much had been made prior to Saturday’s contest about Illinois coach Tim Beckman sending coaches to State College trying to recruit Penn State players after the fallout from the NCAA sanctions levied against the Nittany Lions. The two teams did cross paths coming off the field after the first half and engaged in a shouting match.
Linebacker Gerald Hodges said the halftime interaction fired up Penn State even more.
“It definitely revved the guys up because they felt as though [Illinois players] were still trying to take shots at them,” Hodges said.
Starting running back Bill Belton did returned to lineup today after missing three games with a knee injury but it was senior running back Zach Zwinak who saw the majority of the carries on Saturday.
Zwinak finished the game with 100 yards rushing on 19 carries. Zwinak is the Lions' first 100 plus-yard rusher since Silas Redd posted 137 yards rushing against Illinois last season in Beaver Stadium.
O’Brien credited the offensive line and how well they’ve been playing.
"They're physical players," said O'Brien. "We told them from day one of training camp that we were going to try and be a physical offense, a north and south running team. They've done a nice job of that."
Illinois got on the board in the second half with some trickery. Scheelhaase completed a lateral pass to redshirt freshman running back Josh Ferguson who hits junior wide receiver Spencer Harris in the end zone for the 22 yard touchdown. That would be their lone touchdown of the game.
Penn State returns to Beaver Stadium next week for homecoming weekend as they welcome the undefeated Northwestern Wildcats. That game will be broadcast live on ComRadio at noon on Saturday.
Tom Zulewski is a senior majoring in Journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.