Penn State Nittany Lions: Illinois


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.
Bill O'Brien and Tim Beckman didn't shake hands before the game.

The specter of the Illinois coaching staff stepping on Penn State's campus shortly after the sanctions in hopes of poaching a few players still doesn't seem to be sitting easy with the Nittany Lions. As a result, Penn State appears to be playing angry and has roughed up Illinois' offense so far in a 21-0 first half.

Outside of a 52-yard run, Illinois has gained just 135 yards. And mistakes have further hurt the Illini.

Penalties and turnovers defined Illinois on the game's first three drives and led to two Penn State touchdowns. And, on its last play of the half, Illinois threw an interception that was nearly returned for a touchdown.

Stat of the half: 18:10. Time of possession for PSU. The Nittany Lions have controlled the clock and might be wearing the Illinois defense down. PSU is trying to establish the run, and that's shown on the clock.

Player of the half: Michael Mauti. He was just two yards from returning an interception 99 yards for a touchdown at the end of the half. He also contributed to the critical Illinois fumble on the punt return and hasn't taken a play off on defense. He helped stop a fouth-and-1 QB sneak by Nathan Scheelhaase, and he made a strong stop on Illinois' second punt. He's basically a lock to lead Penn State in tackles every week.

What's working: Capitalizing on opportunities. The Nittany Lions have routinely struggled finishing drives when they get into opponents' territory, but they've capitalized on three in this first half. The offense has sputtered, but it still scored on three of the six times it found itself on Illinois' end of the field. Not great, but still good for PSU.

What's not working: Illinois special teams. It muffed a punt, ran into the kicker and missed a 26-yard field goal. Nearly everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for the Illini. Even its punt team allowed a long return by Evan Lewis.

Making his return: Bill Belton got the starting nod today after he fell to the turf with an ankle sprain in the second half of Week 1. He has 10 carries for 36 yards and is PSU's only home-run threat running the ball.

Call of the half: On a second-and-8 play from the Illinois' 21, O'Brien decided to open up the playbook and delineate from Penn State's short-pass identity in the first half. McGloin found Matt Lehman about 18 yards downfield, and the tight end put his head down and rumbled three more yards for the score. That call put Penn State up 21-0.

5 storylines: PSU vs. Illinois 

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
9:30
AM ET
Every week, NittanyNation takes a look at five storylines that stand out: What should fans keep an eye on? What's the bigger picture? What might be on display Saturday?

Here are NittanyNation's Week 5 storylines:

1. "Poaching" PSU players: When Tim Beckman's staff stepped foot on Penn State's campus after the sanctions, animosity was instantly created between the Fighting Illini and the Nittany Lions. Players tried to deflect any talk of the rivalry this week, but tailback Derek Day admitted the team was offended. Ryan Nowicki was the lone Penn State player to transfer to Champaign, and PSU cornerback Stephon Morris called him a coward at media day.

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