If ever there was an opportunity for a statement game, this was it. The decision Illinois head coach Tim Beckman made to send a pack of assistant coaches to Penn State’s campus under lifted NCAA recruiting rules this summer did not sit well with Penn State players and coaches. On Saturday, in the Big Ten opener on Illinois’s campus, Penn State delivered their formal response with a 35-7 victory. Some might even suggest Success With Honor prevailed.
While Bill O’Brien and his team refrained from speaking too much about their feelings about the way Illinois responded to Penn State’s NCAA sanctions, the message was clear. Prior to the game O’Brien stayed as far away as possible from Beckman, ignoring the formal pregame handshake that happens so often in football. Rather than float around midfield, as many coaches will do during pregame warm-ups, O’Brien stayed closer to the end zone. When it came time for the postgame handshake O’Brien and Beckman met very briefly, with seemingly no words exchanged.
Quarterback Matt McGloin did not have his best outing of the season but he was effective enough to lead Penn State to the win, passing for 211 yards and one touchdown and adding a pair of rushing touchdowns down close to the end zone. Zach Zwinak rushed for a career best 100 yards and a pair of touchdowns to lead the ground game, which also welcomed back Bill Belton. Belton rushed for 65 yards in his return to the field.
Much has been made about Penn State’s shortcomings on special teams but in the first quarter it was Illinois who showed some questionable special teams play. On Penn State’s opening drive of the game Sam Ficken was called on to attempt a short field goal, which he made, but a running in to the kicker penalty from Illinois gave the Nittany Lions a second chance. Fullback Zach Zwinak punched it in for a touchdown just a couple of plays later to take advantage of the second chance and give Penn State a quick 7-0 lead after Ficken converted the extra point.
Penn State took advantage of an average Illinois punt to start with good field position. Matt McGloin would cap the drive by punching it in with a quarterback sneak to put Penn State up 14-0. Illinois moved inside the red zone on their ensuing possession, thanks in large part to a 52-yard run by Donovan Young, but a 26-yard field goal attempt by Taylor Zalewski missed wide right.
Penn State would build a 21-0 lead with McGloin tossing his Big Ten-leading tenth touchdown pass to Matt Lehman for a 21-yard score. Lehman was on the receiving end helmet-to-helmet hit from Ernest Thomas III, who was ejected for the hit. Illinois threatened late in the first half and was faced with a fourth and goal from inside the 10-yard line with 19 seconds remaining in the first half. After a timeout Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti intercepted a pass over the middle from Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and nearly returned it the entire length of the field down the left sideline, but his knee fell to the ground after a 99-yard return, the longest in program history. Penn State was given one second before the half and elected to try for a short field goal, but Ficken’s attempt was blocked by Illinois as time expired with weak protection and a high snap all playing a part in the latest special team gaffe for the Nittany Lions. Ficken also missed on a 47-yard attempt in the second quarter on a long fourth down.
The Illini turned things around at the start of the second half, first by pinning Penn State on their own one-yard line with good punt coverage and the defense forced Penn State to punt from deep in their own end zone four plays later. But it would be a trick play, with Scheelhaase tossing backward to Josh Ferguson, who then connected with a wide-open Spencer Harris for the touchdown.
McGloin’s second rushing touchdown of the day put Penn State up 28-7 late in the third quarter, and Mauti’s second interception of the game toward the end of the quarter started to put the clamps down on Penn State’s third straight win.
Penn State returns home next weekend for a Homecoming game against Northwestern. The Wildcats will come to Beaver Stadium next week with a 5-0 record after putting away Indiana at home on Saturday. Illinois will try to pick up their first Big Ten win next week at Wisconsin.
Kevin is a national college football writer for quadrust.com and the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. Submit your mailbag questions via Tumblr. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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