Penn State Football: Nittany Lions Outplay and OutMauti Illinois, 35-7
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Penn State was too much for an outmanned, outcoached and outMautied Illinois in Memorial Stadium on Saturday, overwhelming the barely-Fighting Illini, 35-7.
For the Nittany Lions (3-2) and first-year head coach Bill O’Brien, the Big Ten season-opener was their third victory in a row.
Equally as important, it settled a debt with Illinois coach Tim Beckman, who went to State College with seven of his assistants over the summer in an NCAA-sanctioned attempt to lure Penn State's players to Champaign and returned with a stellar third-stringer, Ryan Nowicki.
The rest of the Penn State players came, too -- 10 weeks later, wearing road whites and thinking “Sanction this.”
“It was an important Big Ten win for us,” said O’Brien, who has repeatedly refused to criticize Beckman. “It’s important for us to get off to a fast start.”
O’Brien even shook hands with Beckman after the game – but you’d have to break down the game tape ala the Zapruder Film to catch all three frames of it.
Linebacker Michael Mauti, the hero of the day – and with quarterback Matt McGloin, the season this far – wasn’t so diplomatic.
“It was sweet,” Mauti told a huddle of about 40 reporters, while sitting in the front row of the stands after emerging from the locker room. “We hadn’t forgotten what happened over the summer. To be honest with you, that was at the back of our minds and it kept us going.”
Mauti grabbed a pair of interceptions and taking the first one 99 yards at the end of the first half. He also had six tackles, including what is now a patented solo shot on the punt team, and was credited with half of a sack.
Led by Mauti and fellow linebackers Glenn Carson and Gerald Hodges (both had nine tackles), the Nittany Lion defense has yielded just 27 points in the past three games.
McGloin and running backs Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton paced the Penn State offense.
McGloin threw for 211 yards on 18 of 30 passing, for 211 yards and a 21-yard scoring pass to tight end Matt Lehman in the second quarter. It was McG’s 32nd career TD pass, moving him to No. 7 on the all-time Penn State list (Darryl Clark’s 43 is within reach). He also scored on a pair of 1-yard sneaks, giving him four rushing TDs this season. McGloin was sacked three times, equaling the number of sacks in the first four games.
Zwinak rushed for 100 yards on 19 carries, giving him 194 yards on 37 carries over the past two weeks. He had a pair of touchdown runs, both from one yard out. Belton, playing for the first time since the opening game loss to Ohio, ran 16 times for 65 yards.
The Nittany Lions, who jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead, were lighting fast on all five touchdown drives. No drive was longer than 2:56, even though four lasted eight plays and the other was seven plays.
Illinois' touchdown came in the third quarter, when Josh Ferguson tossed a 22-yard scoring pass to a wide-open Spencer Harris. In the first half, the Illini's Taylor Zalewski missed a 26-yard field goal.
Penn State kicker Sam Ficken continued his hard luck campaign, missing a 47-yard field goal wide left in the second quarter and having an 18-yard low line-drive blocked to end the first half after Mauti’s return.
Still, no matter how you looked at it, Illinois (2-3, 0-1) had been Nowickied.
HALFTIME: PENN STATE 21, ILLINOIS 0
Penn State led Illinois 21-0 at halftime, after McGloin completed a 21-yard touchdown pass to Lehman that almost knocked out the tight end -- and may have been the knockout punch that sealed the Lions' Big Ten Conference-opener.
But the heavyweight play of the day, and of the Nittany Lions' 2012 season, was a 99-yard interception return by Mauti. Call him M-WoW.
And Ficken may be down for the count, as he missed field goals from 47 yards (wide left) and 18 yards (blocked) in the second quarter.
The bottom line: After five first halves this season, it's Penn State 76, Everyone Else 9.
FIRST QUARTER: PENN STATE 14, ILLINOIS 0
Illinois' special teams were anything but, as Penn State led 14-0 after the first quarter.
Zalewski missed a 26-yard field goal, preserving the Nittany Lions' 14-0 shutout and negating a 52-yard run by Illinois' Donovonn Young. That's the closet Illinois got to scoring -- thanks to Malcolm Willis. The Nittany Lion safety tackled Young from behind on the Penn State 11. The Penn State defense stiffened, holding Illinois to three yards on three plays.
Otherwise, the first 15 minutes were all Penn State.
A 1-yard sneak by McGloin gave Penn State a two-touchdown lead over Illinois just 8:31 into the first quarter, as the Nittany Lions manhandled a not-really-Fighting Illini team.
McGloin's run, followed by a PAT by Ficken, put Penn State ahead 14-0. It capped an eight-play, 60 yard-drive that hurried down field in just 2:28. McGloin completed three key passes on the drive: 10 yards to Brandon Moseby-Felder, 19 yards to Kyle Carter and 15 yards to Allen Robinson.
Penn State took a 7-0 lead over Illinois just 4:19 into the game, capitalizing on a pair of Illinois miscues on special teams.
Illini punt return man Tommy Davis muffed an Alex Butterworth punt, and Nittany Lions snapper Michael Fuhrman recovered at the 26. Six plays later, PSU kicker Ficken made a 24-yard field goal, but was roughed on the play by Illinois' V'Angelo Bentley. (Even Ficken's field goals that are good are not good.) That gave Penn State a first down, and two plays later, Zwinak followed the blocking of Michael Zordich for a 1-yard ZD. Ficken made the PAT and PSU led 7-0, following an 8-play, 26-yard, 2-minute and 56-second drive.
(Fuhrman, BTW, is the son of Chet Fuhrman, Penn State's strength and conditioning coach from 1979-1992.)
Penn State's players had a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call Saturday, leaving plenty of time for breakfast, team meetings and some lobby sitting to make the 10-minute ride from the team hotel to Illinois' Memorial Stadium 90 minutes later.
By 8:30 a.m., the Nittany Lions -- dressed in sweats -- were on the field's artificial turf, getting the lay of the land in the Land of Lincoln.
Kickoff is at 12:01 p.m., which is noon in State College. ESPN is broadcasting the game, with Dave Pasch (play-by-play), Brian Griese (color) and Jenn Brown (sidelines) calling the contest.
Both Penn State and Illinois enter the game 2-2, but the Nittany Lions have some momentum, beating Navy (34-7) and Temple (24-13) in Beaver Stadium the past two weeks. The Illini, whose losses were by a combined 97-38, have Ryan Nowicki.
Nowicki is the marginally-talented third-string offensive tackle for Illinois first-year coach Tim Beckman lured from Penn State after NCAA sanctions this summer made the PSU free agents. Nowicki is No. 78 in the program and second last in Penn State fans' heart -- just ahead of Beckman.
Don't let anyone kid you: The loss of Nowicki did nothing to hurt Penn State on the field. But it did a lot to to fire the team's emotions. The Nittany Lions -- and rookie head coach Bill O'Brien -- are using Beckman's fishing expedition in State College in July as a big rallying cry. As recently as Friday night in the team hotel.
-- Last night in downtown Champaign nary a sighting of an Illini fan over the age of 30. Souvenir shops and bookstores all closed by 8 p.m. No one seems interested in the game (definitely not The Game).
-- O'Brien was wearing khakis and a blue jacket -- longtime attire for a Penn State head coach.
-- This is the seventh time in nine seasons Penn State has opened the Big Ten Conference schedule on the road, and – as O'Brien has noted -- the 12th in 20 seasons.
-- Penn State's last visit here was on Oct. 3, 2009, under Joe Paterno. After leading 7-3 at halftime, Penn State had the ball almost 20 minutes in the second half, outgaining the Illini 208-8 in third-quarter yardage and scoring four TDs to win 35-17 (although since vacated by the NCAA).
-- Penn State has been listed as a favorite, varying accounts setting the margin between 1 and 2 points.
-- Illinois will sport new uniforms: blue helmets, Orange jerseys, blue pants.