By: C.J. Doon
After back-to-back losses to Ohio and Virginia to start the season, Penn State appeared to be on the brink of a disastrous year.
Now, after dominating the Fighting Illini of Illinois 35-7 in Champaign, Ill. on Saturday, the Nittany Lions have reeled off three straight wins, and have their sights set on a Big Ten Leaders Division title.
It’s quite the turnaround for a team that witnessed the departure of 18 players as a result of NCAA sanctions.
Following Penn State’s first Big Ten victory of the season, the players gathered in the locker room for an impromptu huddle and shouted “Family!” on three, a sign of the bond that has kept this team together through tough times.
The Illinois coaching staff could learn a thing or two about “family” from these Lions.
In the weeks following the announcement of “unprecedented” sanctions levied against the Penn State football program by NCAA president Mark Emmert, members of the Illinois coaching staff were spotted in the State College area looking to recruit Nittany Lions to come and play for the Illini. This drew the ire of many Penn State players and fans, and was the topic of conversation heading into Saturday’s Big Ten opener.
Head coach Bill O’Brien refused to comment on the situation, instead saying “It takes a lot to bother me, so I would tell you that, again, our players, myself, our staff – we’re very focused on the task at hand. Get on a plane, go to Illinois, and hopefully we’re prepared to play a great Illinois team. That’s what our focus is.”
Senior linebacker Michael Mauti, who has emerged as the unquestioned leader of Penn State’s defense, instead chose to give the Illini faithful a piece of his mind. At the Big Ten media day in Chicago in July, Mauti said, “If you’re from our conference and you’re going to try and steal our players and then wish us well…I got a serious problem with that.”
When game day arrived, Penn State’s leading tackler let his play do the talking. The senior linebacker picked off a pair of Nathan Scheelhause passes, including a 99-yard interception return with only seconds remaining in the second quarter. Mauti, an early candidate for the Butkus Award honoring the nation’s best linebacker, stepped in front of short pass at the goal line intended for Illinois’ wide receiver Ryan Lankford, and returned the ball all the way to the Illinois 1-yard line before being tackled from behind. Sam Ficken’s 18-yard field goal attempt with one second remaining was blocked, but the interception prevented the Illini from scoring, and preserved Penn State’s 21-0 lead before halftime.
As a result of his stellar performance, Mauti was named the Walter Camp National Player of the Week.
“This [was] our first Big Ten game. Obviously, having to play against these guys, it was sweet,” Mauti said. “We haven’t forgotten what’s happened this summer. We had that in the back of our minds, and that kept us going.”
On the offensive side of the ball, Matt McGloin & Co. stayed hot. McGloin struggled to find his receivers early on, but was able to find his rhythm as the game progressed and march the Lions down the field for five touchdowns. Tight ends Kyle Carter and Matt Lehman proved to be a handful for the Illini defense, combining for 115 yards on eight catches and one touchdown. McGloin finished the afternoon with 211 yards and one touchdown, including two rushing touchdowns for the second consecutive week.
Although the Lions put up an impressive 35 points, McGloin thinks the offense can play even better. “35 points isn’t enough for us,” McGloin said. “We should be putting up a lot more than that.”
The most encouraging sign of the afternoon was the emergence of Penn State’s running game, led by sophomore tailback Zach Zwinak. Zwinak, listed at 6’ 1”, 231 lbs, chewed up Illinois’ defense, rushing for 100 yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns. With 10:41 left to play in the first quarter, Zwinak barreled his way into the end zone, scoring the first rushing touchdown by a Penn State running back this season. Bill Belton, returning from an ankle injury suffered during the season-opener to Ohio, used his speed and agility to complement Zwinak’s power, gaining 65 yards on 16 carries after starting the game at tailback.
After picking up their first road win of the season, Penn State heads home to play one of the few remaining undefeated teams in the Big Ten, facing off against #24 Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) at Beaver Stadium. The game is set to kickoff at 12PM ET. on ESPN, and will conclude Homecoming Week in Happy Valley.