The history books will record Joe Paterno beating Illinois to become the winningest coach in NCAA Division-1 history. It will say Derek Moye came off the bench a mere three weeks after suffering a foot stress fracture to inspire a beautiful 12-play drive to win the game. Truly a legendary story for a legendary coach, one that will be fictionalized beyond recognition over time.
However, what will be lost is the fact Illinois should have won the game. The Illini had a touchdown called back by penalty in the first half, followed by a field goal snap muffed by holder Tim Russell. And a Derek Dimke 42 yard field goal attempt as time expired hit the right upright to prevent overtime.
In addition, the Illini lost two fumbles and gave up two interceptions plus a blocked punt to give PSU multiple opportunities. The snow can be credited with causing some of the miscues, the Nittany Lions uncharacteristically fumbling 6 times. However, they recovered all but two of their bobbles.
Adding insult to injury, there were some questionable officiating calls that aided PSU's cause. For instance, two possible personal fouls were not called on the Nittany Lions. On the first, Nathan Scheelhaase was speared in the head without a call, the hit causing a fumble. A late hit out of bounds wasn't called as well.
A.J. Jenkins appeared to catch a pass from Reilly O'Toole, but D'Anton Lynn stole the ball from Jenkins's hands while he sat on the ground. The play was ruled an interception. A Matt McGloin pass caught by Devon Smith on the drive where PSU scored a field goal appeared down a yard behind the first down marker, but he was awarded a first down, and PSU got a play off before the spot could be reviewed. And there was a somewhat questionable interference call against Justin Green on a sideline pass that extended PSU's touchdown drive.
Illinois had enough difficulties with a powerful Penn State defense and large home crowd on a cold, wet day without any extra help from the officiating. The officials were not the cause for the Illini loss; there were too many other mistakes and problems to overcome. Especially when you add Joe Paterno's special destiny to the mix. But they stuck an extra dagger or two into Illini hearts.
Illini head coach Ron Zook was heartbroken by the loss, as were his players and Illini Nation. It was in their grasp, and they let it slip away. But the defense played well most of the game, and the offense helped after another slow start.
"I'm proud of them; they fought hard," Zook said afterward. "We made too many mistakes, particularly in the first half before we really got going. There was a lot of things in all three phases that could have changed it. I think overall we played extremely hard. The defense played great except for that last drive."
Of course, he was magnanimous in defeat.
"It was a great game. Hats off to Penn State. They did a great job. There's a reason why they're 8-1 now. We were just too little too late."
The Illini offense couldn't muster a first down until late in the second quarter. Penn State was almost as futile, its only decent drive ending with a missed 43 yard field goal. It was a game of field position throughout the half, with each side unable to capitalize on turnovers.
Late in the half, Jonathan Brown forced and then recovered a Rob Bolden fumble, giving the Illini great field position at the PSU 25 yard line. O'Toole, in the game as Scheelhaase recovered his senses after the aforementioned spearing incident, hit Ryan Lankford, who made a sensational 12 yard reception with the toes of one foot in bounds. Scheelhaase re-entered and ran an option for 8 yards down to the three yard line.
It was here the Illini made two mistakes that will haunt them for some time to come. Running a quick set, Jason Ford, who ran for 100 yards on the day, appeared to push the three yards into the end zone. Unfortunately, fullback Jay Prosch was overeager and leaned forward before the snap, creating a five yard penalty.
After an incompletion, Dimke entered for a 26 yard chip shot field goal. Holder Tim Russell, who claimed later the ball was wet and slippery, fumbled a good snap. The Illini could have entered halftime with a 7 or 3 point lead, but they still had zero on the scoreboard.
The Illini gained 207 of their 286 total yards in the second half, but they could only sustain one drive. In that instance, they traveled 64 yards in 11 plays. Scheelhaase found Spencer Harris alone in the end zone from 10 yards out to put the UI up 7-0.
The Illini defense continued to confound the conservative PSU attack, but the Nittany Lion defense was doing the same to the Illini. On fourth down in their own territory, Justin DuVernois's punt was blocked, giving the ball to PSU on the UI 31 yard line. The Illini defense stiffened, but Anthony Fera put PSU on the board with a 30 yard field goal.
It appeared the Illini were in good position after they took time off the clock with an 8 play drive. When DuVernois punted into the end zone, PSU had 3:05 to go 80 yards. They needed only two of those minutes. Moye caught passes of 20 and 6 yards, but the entire PSU offense seemed to perk up with him in the game. Silas Redd, who ended with 137 yards in 30 carries, bulled over from the three to give his team the lead at 10-7.
The Illini did what they needed to do, marching from their own 17 to the PSU 25 yard line in less than a minute to give Dimke his final opportunity with 5 seconds remaining. Dimke had a streak of 10 straight field goals ended when his ball hit the right upright to give PSU and Paterno their win.
The Illini needed this win, not only to keep their season goals alive but to regain their confidence and pacify the naysayers. It will take awhile to get over this one, but fortunately there is a bye week coming up. Their bodies will have a chance to get their bounce back. But Zook says their mental state must be addressed as well.
"Like I told the football team, we need to get away from it a couple days. Don't think about football."
One thing is certain. The Illini still have much reason to keep their spirits up, as Zook reminds.
"We still have three games, two of them at our place, and we have an opportunity to play well. We still have an opportunity to have a big year, we really do. It's a three game season, and we have to take them one at a time."