It was a lovely early afternoon in Happy Valley as a small band of loyal Illinois football fans shouted "I-L-L...I-N-I" in a totally quiet Beaver Stadium. It was as if they were the only ones in the cavernous facility. What a lovely sound it was. Over 107,000 rabid Penn State fans had entered the turnstyles, but many had left long before the end.
After two frustrating seasons where the Illini appeared to be getting worse rather than better, they rose up to make Illini Nation proud once again. Any win, no matter the final score, is a blessing against a perennially powerful PSU team coached by legendary Joe Paterno. To dominate so completely boosts Illini confidence and fan loyalty at a time it is most needed.
This game was no fluke, making the win even more satisfying. The Illini dominated every facet from beginning to end. Only two muffed punts and a single defensive breakdown prevented a shutout. The Illini defense was stout throughout, and Nathan Scheelhaase led an efficient, productive Illini offense to consistent gains against the Nittany Lion defense.
Illinois head coach Ron Zook was drenched with Gatoraid by joyous players as the clock ran down. He was understandably happy to get this big win.
"I'm really proud of our guys, I'm proud of our coaches, I'm proud of the Illini fans. The ones who were there had a great time. I think they had a great show. I'm impressed to be able to come in here and for the first time win. It's big for everybody."
For the first time this season, the Illini put pedal to the metal for the entire game. Zook emphasized that afterward.
"We didn't let up. I think that's the first game we truly played 60 minutes. Now we'll have to continue to do it next week as well."
Both the Illini offense and defense made equally loud statements in the game and supported each other's effort. When the two muffed punts gave the Nittany Lions great field position, the Illini defense stiffened. And when Penn State burned the Illini on first down play action to score on an 80 yard pass, the Illini offense came right back to score.
"We're playing one play at a time," Zook explained. "We're really proud of our defense. When they get down like that and we hold them to just three, it's a success. And we did it twice. And then when they had the 80 yard touchdown, we came back on offense. We're doing what we're supposed to do. We're not worrying about anything but our jobs."
Penn State was giving up an average of only 290 total yards going into the game, but the Illini burned them for 437 yards. Illinois's 282 yards rushing was 164 more than PSU averages. The Illini dominated time of possession 38:12 to 21:48 and had 23 first downs compared to just 7 for the Lions.
Zook was excited about the play of his runners and offensive line and was especially pleased about the yardage gained on first downs.
"We had to get into manageable third down situations, and we did that. It felt so good to see the running backs going forward and carrying the pile. The way we're running the football, and the way the offensive line is blocking, I'm really proud of them. I think the offensive line did a great job. We played the way we are capable of playing."
The Penn State defense was admittedly banged up, having lost several top players to injury. But no one expected this type of control over a defense known for always being extremely well coached. Mikel Leshoure led the rushing charge for the Illini with 119 tough yards in 27 carries, but he had help from Troy Pollard (8 carries for 55 yards) and Jason Ford (9 carries for 47 yards).
Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase clearly won his individual competition with PSU freshman Rob Bolden. He completed 15 of 19 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown and gained 61 additional yards in 8 carries. Plus, he ran the team with great efficiency. Bolden was just 8 of 21 for 141 yards and one interception, the 80 yard play accounting for most of his success."Nathan is getting better and better," Zook bragged. "Every time he steps on the field he's gonna get better. I really think the offensive staff is doing a great job of helping him grow by doing the things he feels comfortable with."
The Illini defense was led by Martez Wilson, who had 12 tackles including a pass breakup on a blitz. Bussey added 8 tackles in addition to his interception. Trulon Henry and Akeem Spence had five tackles each. Corey Liuget and Glenn Foster were each credited with sacks. Cornerback Travon Bellamy added two pass breakups.
Penn State had the early lead on a 28 yard Collin Wagner field goal after the first of two Jack Ramsey punt muffs. But the Illini roared back with an 11 play, 80 yard drive to grab a lead they would never relinquish. Scheelhaase gained 28 yards on a scramble, and he hit A.J. Jenkins over the middle for an 18 yard catch-and-run touchdown early in the second quarter.
After an exchange of punts Bolden made a grievous error, attempting a flat pass that Illini Nathan Bussey first tipped into the air and then grabbed for a 16 interception return for touchdown to put the Illini up 14-3.
Expecting run, Penn State burned the Illini on its first play from scrimmage at the 20 yard line. Bolden made a strong run fake and then threw long to Derek Moye past the Illini secondary for their only touchdown on the day.
But the Illini came right back with a drive from their own 20 to PSU's 33. The drive stalled but Derek Dimke, who hit four field goals on the day, delivered a 50 yarder to give the Illini a 17-10 advantage. Zook asked Dimke's opinion on the play.
"He kicked well. The first one was a bit long and was into the wind a little bit. But he felt good about it. A fifty yard field goal is pretty big into a slight breeze. Those were big key points there."
Penn State couldn't obtain a first down on it's next drive, but Ramsey muffed his second punt to give the Lions possession on the nine yard line. Again the Illini defense stiffened, forcing a 22 yard Wagner field goal. The Illini came right back, using the clock to advantage by maneuvering downfield to set up a 31 yard Dimke field goal as the half ended.
Penn State would not score again. On the Illini's first second half possession, Pollard scampered 20 yards, and Scheelhaase scrambled for 16 more.
On third and goal from the four, the Illini tried trickery with success. Scheelhaase pitched to Ford, who passed to tight end Evan Wilson in the end zone for a 27-13 lead. This score took the wind out of Nittany Lion sails, and the fans began their slow migration from their beloved stadium.
The Illini left no doubt on their next two possessions, eating clock with a strong running game before setting up Dimke field goals of 41 and 37 yards for the final point total. The big play of the second drive was a swing pass from Scheelhaase to Leshoure that netted 32 yards. It was all academic from there as reserves saw valuable playing time.
This win rekindles talk of a possible bowl season for Illinois. There are many difficult obstacles ahead, but momentum appears to be building for an Illini revival. With three wins and seven games left to play, there is renewed hope. Zook's only concern was preparing for the Michigan State trip next Saturday.
"It's only number two in the Big 10. We've still got six to go. Everyone's gonna be just like that. We're gonna have to play. I'm really proud of the way we prepared. If we prepare like that, then we've got a chance to play like that."
Celebrate this victory Illini fans. It was a long time coming, but it was made more satisfying knowing they can win in Happy Valley against a coach winding down a Hall of Fame career. The Illini may not be able to say they are back as yet, but they are clearly on their way.
Of course, Zook, his assistants and his players have precious little time to enjoy this one.
"Now we've got to enjoy this, and then tomorrow get ready for another one."