Surging Illini Beat Penn State

CHAMPAIGN -- The sun was shining brightly for the Fighting Illini football team as it pulled out an exciting 27-20 victory over classy Penn State Saturday at refurbished Memorial Stadium. The Illini fandom remained inside the stadium long after the victory, celebrating their biggest win in the last six years.

Illinois had gone 19 games since their last win against a ranked team, and it had been 12 years since they had defeated a ranked Big Ten team in Memorial Stadium. No wonder the fans stayed and celebrated so loudly. It had been a drought some thought might never end.

Coach Ron Zook and his staff were just as ecstatic. It was just two years ago on this same field where Penn State annihilated the Illini 63-10 in a game that caused many to wonder whether Zook could right the sinking ship.

"Two years ago, that was the low point. I just had the feeling we had to stay the course. You think about these players who have been with us for three years. They've had some tough times. It's hard to come in every Sunday (after losses). It takes a lot of energy. Now, we can use our energy to improve."

Offensive tackle Xavier Fulton may have been the happiest Illini of all as his memory of the PSU game two years ago included a severe knee injury that made some wonder whether he would ever play football again. All the hard work since then has paid off, and Xavier was seen hugging everyone he came across afterward.

"This was a really emotional win for me today. Two years ago, I tore my knee up against Penn State at home. And it just really got to me. I'm very excited. It was definitely worth it (all the suffering and hard work)."

There were many heroes for the Illini, but one of the biggest might have been the fans. They were loud and boistrous. They willed the Illini to hold on and win. They performed like seasoned veterans even though wins like this one were only distant memories to them.

"The crowd was super," complimented Zook. "I don't ever think I've seen football players go up into the stands. It just shows how much they (the fans) mean to us. It was an honor to play in front of a sold out crowd."

Many Illini players took advantage of the steps near their locker leading to the new North end zone seating to give a personal thanks to the fans. It was a spontaneous act led by defensive end Will Davis, and it was a sincere thanks for the fans' tremendous support.

"We just wanted to thank the crowd," explained Davis. "We would die without them."

Of course, there were a number of Illini heroes on the field as well, and every player who played could be singled out for special praise. But among the most memorable were Arrelious Benn, Rashard Mendenhall, the quarterback tandem of Juice Williams and Eddie McGee, the Illini offensive line, J. Leman, Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison, Doug Pilcher, Will Davis, Chris Norwell, Antonio Steele and Vontae Davis.

Benn electrified the crowd early in the first quarter. After Penn State had moved quickly downfield for an opening field goal to take a 3-0 lead, Benn took the ensuing kickoff back 90 yards for a touchdown. He broke one tackle and then outsped the Nittany Lion defenders to give the Illini a lead they would never relinquish.

"The guys up front did a good job, and I knew when he got into the open that no one was going to catch him," understated Zook.

Penn State had a good game plan that was a stark contrast to their game the preceeding week against Michigan. They opened up with a wide open passing attack that found Illini defenders biting on play fakes. Kevin Mitchell described the problem Penn State presented early.

"They were probably tormented a little bit about how they haven't really been throwing the ball (in past games). And the man (quarterback Anthony Morelli) does real good play fakes. At first, they got us when we bit up. But on those balls where we did get beat deep, it was kind of miscommunication in the secondary. That usually doesn't happen given the veterans we are. But what was good about it was we made the corrections."

Coach Zook preaches constantly about preventing big plays, but PSU has outstanding athletes. Their wide receivers may all someday play pro football, and they found openings in the Illini's zones in the first half.

"That's what we said at halftime, we can't give up big plays," said Zook. "That receiving corps is as good as we've seen so far. Our defense is a pretty good defense. I really believe that."

After holding Penn State without a first down on their second possession, Juice Williams led an impressive 69 yards in 13 plays for their second touchdown. Mixing his own option runs with pitches to Rashard Mendenhall, Brian Gamble and Benn, the Illini showed good progress on the ground. And Juice mixed things up by completing passes to Benn and Mendenhall to keep the drive alive. Fullback Russ Weil made a devastating block to free Rashard for the two yards needed to give the Illini a 14-3 lead.

But Penn State is an outstanding team that counters opponents' scoring drives. The Nittany Lions needed only three plays to score their own touchdown to make it 14-10. Passes of 42 yards to Justin Norwood and the final 24 yards to Derrick Williams made the Illini wonder what hit them.

Moving into the second quarter, both teams had drives ended prematurely by stiffening defenses. The Illini's Sirod Williams forced running back Reggie Kinlaw to cough up the ball, and Kevin Mitchell recovered on the PSU 40 yard line. Rashard ran for 11 yards, and then Arrelious Benn did something that may become an all-time special play.

Taking a short inside slant pass from Juice, he proceeded to break four different tackles on his way to a 29 yard touchdown to make the score 21-10. "I just didn't want to be denied," stated Benn matter-of-factly.

"He's a heck of a talent," understated Zook. "He's so big and strong and powerful. His legs look like a linebacker almost."

Again, Penn State fought back. Playing with a brisk wind at their backs, the Nittany Lions reached paydirt after just four plays to neutralize the Illini's brief momentum. Morelli's 43 yard pass to Norwood preceded Austin Scott's seven yard touchdown burst to make the score 21-17.

Both teams moved the ball with some success the rest of the half, but the closest anyone came to scoring was a long field goal attempt PSU's Kevin Kelly missed with less than a minute to play. Illini defensive ends Doug Pilcher and Will Davis contributed sacks to slow Penn State's plans. The Illini tried to get something going with their 2 minute offense in the waning seconds of the half, but a long pass aimed for Kyle Hudson in the end zone was broken up by an alert PSU defender.

As is often true of important Big Ten games, the second half became more of a defensive struggle as both teams made adjustments to counter each others' offensive tendencies. The Illini did drive 40 yards on their first possession before they stalled. Jason Reda boomed a 47 yard field goal against the wind to give Illinois a 24-17 advantage.

But Penn State became stingier as the game went on. Center Ryan McDonald was ecstatic with the win, but he was also worn out from the major challenge of blocking the Nittany Lions' strong and athletic defenders.

"Their defense in its entirety is pretty solid. They're a very good team. They're fundamentally sound, and they did a heck of a job shutting us down once they figured out what we were doing in the second half."

Fulton expanded on that concept.

"It was a very aggressive defense we were playing against, and their linebackers are amazing. They're all over the field making plays. It's good there were no sacks. There's always room for improvement as we're playing teams that are just as high caliber as the team we just played. We've just got to keep trying to get better each week."

Of course, the Illini defense stiffened as well. Penn State reduced the lead to 24-20 with a 20 yard Kelly field goal after a seven play drive was stopped on an excellent double team tackle for a 2 yard loss on PSU's Kinlaw by Mitchell and Steele.

Penn State enjoyed great field position most of the third and fourth quarters, but each time they threatened to score the Illini buckled down to prevent it. Perhaps the most important sequence saw J Leman rise to the challenge. Morelli threw a nice pass to tight end Andrew Quarless that he appeared to catch around the Illini ten yard line, but it was knocked out of his hands on an alert play by Leman.

After a seven yard run by Austin Scott, Leman leaped high to intercept a Morelli pass at the 2 yard line to snuff out the rally. It was Leman's first career interception, and it couldn't have come at a better time.

It was a play a leader needs to make, and Leman made it. Co-Defensive Coordinator Dan Disch bragged about Leman's work ethic.

"He gives you everything he's got, and prepares well and is up to the challenge. During the week, he watches more film, he studies the game plan, he pays attention and knows what people are trying to do to take advantage of us."

Juice began to struggle in the second half, missing passes and tightening up as the Illini were constantly backed up near their own end zone. He couldn't get any momentum established or move the chains to keep the defense off the field. It appeared to many the Illini were vulnerable to being overtaken.

But the Illini defense continued to bend but not break. Freshman linebacker Martez Wilson found himself in the open field with super fast receiver Derrick Williams on a reverse and was quick and strong enough to bring him down for a two yard loss. Martez explained his play. "I wasn't going to let him get outside of me. He tried to go back in, but I wasn't going to fall for it." That is easier said than done for most mortals, but not for the upstart Wilson.

Later in that same series, with Penn State moving again, Vontae Davis made an important interception, jumping in front of receiver Deon Butler on the sideline. The Nittany Lions threw away from Davis most of the game, but he was ready when his turn came.

"It was kind of hot, but I just sucked it up and played to win. I knew they were going to do that (throw away from him). I'm one of the top db's in the country."

At this point, the Illini changed quarterbacks, inserting Eddie McGee to spark the offense.

"We felt Juice needed to be settled down some," Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley explained. "On the last three drives, we were three and out, and he was a little fast on the field. He threw some balls we really weren't excited about, so we gave him a chance to settle down. Eddie went in, made a big play for us, and he stayed in the rest of the game. You can call him a reserve, but he gets reps in practice and has to prepare to play when we call upon him."

McGee indeed made a big play. Desperately needing to gain better field position, take time off the clock and score if possible, McGee helped ignite a brief offensive surge that gave them some breathing room. After a clutch 10 yard Rashard Mendenhall run gave them one first down, McGee kept the ball on an option, split two defenders and found himself in open field. The speedy McGee ran 53 yards before being corralled at the Penn State 26 yard line.

The drive stalled there, with McGee missing two passes. But Jason Reda was perfect again, splitting the uprights for a 33 yard field goal to make the score 27-20.

The Illini have two quarterbacks who can make plays, which can be a luxury most teams don't have. Coach Zook insists there is no quarterback controversy.

"Right now, I would say Juice will start against Wisconsin. I obviously want to look at the tape, and we have to see how Juice is going to be, but I don't think we will change at all."

That was the end of the scoring, but much excitement remained. Penn State had two more chances; the Illini defense was up to the challenge. Following the Reda field goal, Penn State threatened the end zone by marching quickly downfield. Linebacker Steele and cornerback Dere Hicks both made excellent tackles for loss, but it was a big fourth down play that finally stopped the drive.

Morelli couldn't find an open receiver on fourth and 13 at the Illini 22 yard line, so he started scrambling. As he neared the first down marker at the nine, Kevin Mitchell made him cough up the ball, where it was recovered by Justin Harrison. Penn State needed a touchdown and not a field goal, thus necessitating this last ditch effort. If Morelli had made the first down, he might have been able to tie the game.

The Illini tried to run out the clock, and they almost succeeded as Rashard made an excellent run for an apparent first down. Unfortunately, an Illini was called for holding on the play, necessitating another punt.

WIth time almost exhausted and Penn State out of time outs, Morelli was sacked by Justin Sanders for a four yard loss on an excellent defensive play call. Morelli then threw a desperation pass deep along the sideline, where Kevin Mitchell ended it with an interception. McGee took a knee, and the game ended 27-20.

Statistics don't tell the whole story. Penn State outgained the Illini 427 yards to 336 yards, but they were on the short end of the score. The Illini did give up 298 passing yards, but they slowed the PSU running game to force the Nittany Lions to pass almost exclusively.

Offensively, the Illini gained 216 yards on the ground, led by Rashard Mendenhall with 76, McGee with 58 and Juice Williams with 40. While this was much below their season average, Penn State had only been giving up an average of 55 rushing yards per game.

Illini passing tailed off in the second half as they protected their lead. Juice ended with 120 passing yards on 11 completions in 24 attempts, one touchdown and two interceptions. McGee was 0 for 3. Arrelious Benn led the Illini receivers with six catches for 84 yards, while Rashard added 27 yards in four touches.

Defensively, J Leman led the Illini with 10 tackles plus his interception. Justin Sanders and Kevin Mitchell each had 8 tackles, Hicks and Brit Miller had seven tackles each, and Will Davis and Antonio Steele each added six tackles.

Locksley has been maligned by some fans for his play calling in the past, but he laughed that he must be a good coach now that Arrelious Benn and others helped make him look better. But on a more serious note, he bragged about the improvement of the whole team.

"I'm always excited to get a "W", especially another Big Ten victory. Penn State came in prepared to play, and we knew it would come down to us being able to execute, and the defense showed up in the second half. That's what it's going to take, to have all three phases of the team being able to carry us at some point."

Coach Zook has also been criticized for his coaching in the past, especially from Florida fans eager to rationalize why they fired him so early in his tenure there. But he must have felt somewhat vindicated on this day, and he was obviously quite relieved to get this big win.

"I'm kind of at a loss for words. The staff did a great job. People can see we've made progress. We still have a lot of football to play. Now, we've got an awfully good football team coming in here next week (Wisconsin), so we can enjoy this for 24 hours and then get back to work."

The Fighting Illini are back. Whether they can continue to win against an extremely difficult schedule remains to be seen. But they have revitalized the Illini fandom and the Champaign-Urbana community. It has been a long time coming, but there appears to be more good days ahead.

And about that notion that Coach Ron Zook can recruit but can't coach, forget it! Without doubt, the Illini are a well-coached team, and that is a tribute to Zook and his entire staff. He has brought excitement and happiness back to a long-suffering school, and he should be lauded for his efforts.

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