Penn State Nittany Lions: Earnest Thomas
September, 29, 2012
By Josh Moyer | ESPN.com
Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin was asked earlier this week how many points the offense needed to score for it to feel in complete control.
"I'd like to see us put up 35 points a game," he said.
He got his wish. Penn State capitalized on a sloppy Illinois performance and avenged Tim Beckman's attempt at poaching players with a 35-7 win Saturday.
Penn State improves to 3-2 with the win, while the Illini drop to 2-3.
It was over when: McGloin rushed for his second TD. Penn State had to respond when Illinois scored its first touchdown to make it a two-score game -- and the Lions did exactly that, just two drives later. Zach Zwinak did the heavy lifting on the 57-yard drive, and McGloin sneaked in for a 1-yard TD to put the score at 28-7 late in the third quarter.
Game ball goes to: Michael Mauti. The linebacker wasn't just the best player on the field in Champaign on Saturday; he was arguably the best in the Big Ten. He intercepted two passes, forced a fumble, added a half-sack and stopped Nathan Scheelhaase on a fourth-and-1 sneak. There's no debate here; he might thave cemented his spot as Big Ten defensive player of the week by the third quarter.
Stat of the game: 1-for-12. That's Illinois third-down conversion rate when the game mattered most, in the first 55 minutes. Third downs are something Penn State has struggled with, but it wasn't an issue Saturday.
Turning point: Mauti's first interception. Illinois was just four yards shy of the end zone, but Mauti grabbed the pick and nearly returned it for a score at the end of the second quarter. Illinois could have entered halftime with a 21-7 score and the momentum -- but Mauti put an end to that.
Unsung hero: Zwinak. He entered this season as the fifth-string tailback but had the hot hand Saturday and ended up rushing for more yards than starter Bill Belton, who's coming off an ankle sprain. Zwinak finished with 100 yards, averaged 5.3 yards a carry and scored two touchdowns.
Second guessing: With the last play of the first half, Bill O'Brien opted to attempt an 18-yard FG. It was blocked, and it might leave some wondering whether he should have just called a handoff to Zwinak or Michael Zordich. A touchdown there would have all but ended the game and put the score at 28-0.
What it means: Beckman tried to downplay his defense's struggles Monday by saying those opposing offenses were different from the Big Ten. But, Penn State showed those games weren't exceptions. For PSU, this game offers a lot of confidence -- and shows it could finish up near the top of the Leaders Division this year.
Pressing concern: Sam Ficken missed both of his field goal attempts, but the 18-yard miss was more from a lack of blocking. Still, that can't give O'Brien a lot of faith in his field-goal unit as a whole. Penn State has missed two extra points and two field goals shorter than 21 yards this season. Nothing appears to be a lock, and the Virginia game likely won't be the last where this unit costs the team a victory.
Ejected: Illinois safety Earnest Thomas was ejected in the second quarter after a helmet-to-helmet hit on tight end Matt Lehman, who had already crossed the end zone. The loss was a big one for Illinois' secondary so early in the contest.