Bill O’Brien and Penn State had a little extra incentive to win their Big Ten opener at Illinois.
That extra incentive produced a blowout of Illinois behind another great performance from Matt McGloin, who threw 211 yards and three total touchdowns in the Nittany Lions’ 35-7 rout. Since starting the season with back-to-back losses, Penn State has won three-straight while outscoring opponents 93-27 in that span.
As usual for the Penn State defense, linebacker Michael Mauti was a key cog in the victory. The senior intercepted Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase twice on the day, including one that he nearly returned 99 yards for a touchdown. The Nittany Lions finally got the ground game working in their fifth game, turning an astounding 52 carries into 173 yards. Sophomore tailback Zach Zwinak led the team with 19 carries for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Fellow sophomore Bill Belton returned to action after missing three games with an ankle injury, he had 16 carries for 65 yards.
Illinois hurt itself with three turnovers, including the two Scheelhaase interceptions to Mauti. The turnovers translated into good starting field possession for the Nittany Lions, who then turned that into points. Penn State did a good job making Illinois one-dimensional, holding the Illini to just 74 yards on 22 carries. The result, combined with a quick 14-0 lead, forced Illinois to throw right into Penn State’s hands.
Scheelhaase ended the day with 270 yards passing, but his legs didn’t factor in the game as he was held in the pocket all day. He found 10 receivers on the day, including Ryan Lankford seven times for 104 yards. His counterpart, Matt McGloin, was 18-30 for 211 yards and a touchdown to tight end Matt Lehman. For the second-straight week, McGloin rushed for two touchdowns.
Illinois, who pursued Penn State players this summer following the NCAA’s sanctions on the Penn State program, met a fight from the visiting Lions, and both played a spirited contest. Players exchanged words as they crossed paths on the way to the locker rooms at halftime and had to be separated by officials and staff members from each team. The game itself was a usual Big Ten-style game with some chippy play and hard hits.
In the midst of a great total team performance, the Nittany Lions were again let down by kicker Sam Ficken, who missed both of his field goal attempts. He did nail of five of his extra points on the afternoon, but is a dreadful two for eight on the season. Given his performance so far, you have to wonder if Bill O’Brien has any confidence in his kicker despite him continuing to give him chances to right himself.
The win kicked off Penn State’s Big Ten schedule that includes upcoming games against No.25 Northwestern, Iowa, No.12 Ohio State, Purdue, No.21 Nebraska, Indiana and Wisconsin. What those teams will face is an improving offense under coach Bill O’Brien every week, and a defense that is showing signs of getting stronger as well. The more this group rallies around each other, the less fun they’ll be to play.
Linebacker Michael Mauti is a broken record for the Penn State defense, totaling another six tackles including a half sack in this one. Did we mention the two interceptions? This guy is flat-out the best defensive player in the Big Ten – maybe even the nation – right now. That’s saying something.
Looking ahead, the Lions welcome the No. 25 Northwestern Wildcats for Homecoming at Beaver Stadium next Saturday. The Wildcats are 5-0 following a win in their Big Ten opener over Indiana over the weekend.