Published October 10, 2010
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – The defense flew around the Beaver Stadium field to knock down running backs, break up passes and frustrate the freshman quarterback in the backfield.
It was Illinois doing its best impression of what used to be Penn State's trademark during a lopsided 33-13 win Saturday.
A year after a defensive letdown in a 3-9 season, the Illini are showing promising signs in 2010. In holding the Nittany Lions to season-lows in yardage (235) and first downs (seven), Illinois turned homecoming in Happy Valley into a coming-out party for its defense.
"No question, it's something we talked about all offseason," coach Ron Zook said. "It is a dramatic change, but it's something we planned for."
Handouts about the Gator Bowl were left in the Beaver Stadium press box after the game. The way things are going now, Illinois (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) is in far better shape then struggling, injury-decimated Penn State (3-3, 0-2) to start dreaming about bowl plans.
"We stunk. I just did a lousy job," coach Joe Paterno said. "We just did a lousy job."
The hallmarks of a Paterno-coached team — a solid running game and a stout, linebacker-led defense — were nowhere to be found among the guys wearing blue and white. Illini players assumed their roles at a stadium where they had never won in six previous tries.
It all changed Saturday.
In the second quarter, for instance, Penn State drove to the Illinois 42, threatening to erase momentum from Nathan Scheelhaase's 18-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Jenkins for a 7-3 lead.
Instead of using senior 218-pound tailback Evan Royster to pound out a fourth-and-1 behind a struggling offensive line, Paterno opted with 197-pound junior backup Stephfon Green.
No gain. Tackle by Martez Wilson — one of a team-high 12 for the linebacker.
On Penn State's next series, Royster was held to two short gains to set up a third down, when linebacker Nate Bussey easily diagnosed an attempted swing pass by freshman quarterback Rob Bolden. Bussey tipped the ball to himself, then jogged into the end zone untouched from 16 yards for a 14-3 lead.
"The first thing we do is stop the run," Bussey said. "If we can stop the run that makes the other team pass the ball and then we have a good opportunity to win the game."
The defense made up for return man Jack Ramsey's terrible afternoon, when he fumbled three times. Two fumbles on punt returns were recovered inside the Illinois 23 — but the red zone-inept Nittany Lions managed just two field goals off the turnovers.
The second instance, when Penn State recovered at the Illini 9, ended with this painfully familiar sequence to Penn State fans: Royster run for four, Royster run for one and an incomplete pass by Bolden from the 4.
Illinois' three-game Big Ten gauntlet is going surprisingly well so far. They had a tighter than expected 24-13 loss to Ohio State the previous week before beating Penn State.
They're brimming with confidence for their trip to Michigan State, which defeated Michigan 34-17 on Saturday.
"Enjoy it tonight and tomorrow we have to go back to work and get ready for Michigan State because that's going to be a barn-burner up there," Zook said.
Penn State gets a much-needed off week to try to recover from a slew of injuries. Already playing without part-time starters in defensive end Jack Crawford (right foot), and linebackers Michael Mauti and Bani Gbadyu, who each had ankle injuries, the team also lost two other key players Saturday to potentially serious injuries in safety Nick Sukay (pectoral muscle) and end Eric Latimore (left wrist).
Another starting end Pete Massaro, left because of dehydration and safety Andrew Dailey — who had replaced Sukay — suffered a stinger. The short-handed defense was already without top reserves in linebacker Gerald Hodges (left leg), and end Sean Stanley and cornerback Derrick Thomas because of off-field issues.
"People will say we had a lot of guys hurt, but that is football," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "You will not be getting an excuse from me there. Guys have to step up and play."