Penn State stays hot against sliding Illini
September, 29, 2012
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com
Penn State was supposed to fall apart after a nightmarish offseason, a historic coaching transition, a seemingly crippling mid-summer roster reduction and an 0-2 start.
Illinois entered the season following back-to-back bowl wins and, despite a coaching change, boasted one of the league's better defenses and a talented roster.
The teams' positions have flipped five games into the season. Penn State continued to roll Saturday with its third consecutive win, taking control early and cruising to a 35-7 win at Memorial Stadium. Led by senior linebacker Michael Mauti and quarterback Matt McGloin, the Lions continued to execute well on both sides of the ball.
Penn State is the hottest team in the Leaders division -- and perhaps the Big Ten. The Lions should be 4-1, and really have played just one bad half all season. Coach Bill O'Brien is doing a fantastic job.
Not surprisingly, O'Brien and Illinois coach Tim Beckman had a very brief handshake after the game. This one was personal for O'Brien after Beckman's summer roster poaching attempts, but his team played with the right type of emotion and overwhelmed Beckman's Illini.
Illinois looked completely lifeless early on, made a brief rally in the third quarter but couldn't fully turn the corner against Penn State, which left the door open a little longer than O''Brien would have liked. After committing six turnovers last week against Louisiana Tech, the Illini had three giveaways Saturday, and never truly got in the game on their home field.
Mauti has been the Big Ten's top linebacker and arguably the league's top defender through the first five weeks. He had another huge performance Saturday with two interceptions, including one he returned for 99 yards just before halftime, setting a team record for longest interception return. You knew Mauti would play inspired ball after everything that happened this summer, and he has stepped up in a big way.
McGloin continued his surprising start, picking apart Illinois' defense for 211 pass yards and adding three rushing touchdowns. It was nice to see McGloin get more receivers involved besides Allen Robinson, as tight end Matt Lehman (5 catches, 70 yards, 1 TD) had a big day. The Lions' offensive line also imposed its will near the goal line, and Zach Zwinak (19 carries, 100 rush yards, 2 TDs) turned in a very nice performance.
Illinois has to be shaken after its third blowout loss of the season, its second at home. The Illini have been outscored 87-31 in their past eight quarters. I thought their defense would fare better against a non-spread offense. Illinois' offense, meanwhile, continues to sputter. Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase put up some decent passing numbers (270 yards), but he had two more interceptions, and couldn't get the team in the end zone while the game was still in doubt.
Special teams miscues were a major problem for Illinois under Ron Zook, and they continued Saturday. A fumbled punt return set up Penn State's first touchdown, and Illinois also missed a short field-goal try.
With upcoming trips to Wisconsin and Michigan, Illinois could be headed for a long season.
Penn State, meanwhile, heads home to Happy Valley riding high.