Lions Too Much to Handle for the Illini

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Late in the first quarter of Penn State's visit to Illinois, receiver DaJaun Warren caught a pass on the sideline, reversed field after running into a wall of white jerseys and kept running until Calvin Lowry dragged him down. Warren covered at least 40 yards. Unfortunately for the Fighting Illini, all but four were sideways.

A few minutes later, Nittany Lions tight end Patrick Hall chugged into the end zone and managed to elude the entire Illinois defense. Left utterly alone, Hall became the recipient of Michael Robinson’s fourth touchdown pass of the first quarter.

It was that kind of night for both teams Saturday as Penn State romped, 63-10. Illinois had to hustle for every yard it could manage while the Lions moved the ball with embarrassing ease, their offense consisting largely of long passes to uncovered wideouts. If anyone thought Penn State would still be reeling after its 27-25 loss at Michigan a week earlier, they thought wrong.

Really, really wrong.

“Aside from Illinois’ first drive, it was pretty much a one-sided game,” center E.Z. Smith said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it. I think it’s good for us to play a game like that after a tough loss. It shows people there was no letdown, no taking Illinois lightly.”

Robinson enjoyed a superb game, accounting for six touchdowns. He completed 11 of 18 passes for 194 yards with four touchdowns passing and two rushing, helping Penn State break a school record with its 56-3 halftime lead. Previously, the team’s highest scoring first half was a 55-point outburst against Fordham in 1947.

“[Robinson] gets better all the time,” Coach Joe Paterno said. “I think that’s probably about as consistent as he’s been all year. He read things well, picked out a couple of open guys and got rid of the ball in a hurry.”

It was a hard performance to nitpick, although that didn’t stop Robinson from finding fault. “We did punt,” the fifth-year senior said, “so it wasn’t as good as you can get.”

It was good enough to lift the Lions to 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the Big Ten and maintain their tie for the conference lead. If they win their final three games, they will claim their first league title in more than a decade.

Illinois, which had an open date to prepare for Penn State, looked thoroughly unprepared. It lost its fifth game in a row, falling to 2-5 overall and 0-4 in the conference.

In so doing, the Illini sent an exuberant homecoming crowd home angry. Boos cascaded down from the stands after Penn State took a 28-3 lead on Hall’s easy touchdown catch. The crowd continued to express its disenchantment when Illinois botched a fake punt by drawing an illegal-procedure penalty. Many of the 52,633 in attendance disappeared to their tailgates at halftime and never came back.

It was hard to blame them. As bad as the first quarter went, the second was worse. Tamba Hali blindsided Illini quarterback Tim Brasic in a sack that drew gasps from the crowd. Receiver Derrick McPherson was ejected from the game after throwing a punch at Anwar Phillips. And the Lions scored four more touchdowns despite pulling a number of starters.

The scoring binge was more than even Paterno could take. “I got angry with the offensive coaches for throwing the ball at the end of the first half,” he admitted. “I didn’t think we needed it.”

Illinois opened in a no-huddle offense that had Penn State on its heels at the start of the game. Brasic completed his first five passes as Illinois drove for a 41-yard Jason Reda field goal.

But after that, Penn State dominated. On the Lions’ first possession, Ethan Kilmer cut inside cornerback Alan Ball on a slant and sprinted 35 yards for a go-head touchdown.

Later in the first quarter, Penn State capitalized on a safety blitz as Deon Butler, uncovered over the middle, caught a 31-yard scoring pass.

Butler scored again on a 19-yard toss from Robinson. Then came Hall’s 3-yard catch, an 18-yard fumble recovery by Dan Connor, runs of 4 and 31 yards by Robinson and a 1-yard dash by Rodney Kinlaw. In the second half, Penn State scored on a 76-yard interception return by Nolan McCready.

Illinois could only manage a 2-yard touchdown pass to Rashard Mendenhall in the fourth quarter. Punter Steve Weatherford, one of the Illini’s busiest players, called the performance “depressing and embarrassing.”

“But there are also positives out of it,” he added. “We played a lot of young guys. We’re a young team and we’re on the up and up. I think this team is going to be in contention for the Big Ten title in later years.”

The Lions are in contention for this year’s title. They are three victories away from winning at least a share of their second Big Ten championship. Their next two games are at Beaver Stadium, and their season-ending visit to Michigan State is looking more manageable after Northwestern demolished the Spartans, 49-14, Saturday in East Lansing.

But while the Lions control their Big Ten destiny, players insist they aren’t looking too far ahead.

They would probably do well not to look back, either. After all, Saturday night’s game had the look of an aberration.

At least for Penn State.

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