Boy, was Paterno not impressed.
Using the word lousy six times in a four-minute postgame news conference (seven if you count the time he spelled the word out for emphasis), the veteran coach lashed out at his beleaguered offense, sounding angrier than he did after any of the team's three losses. Paterno didn't name names, but he left little doubt that he has lost patience with the offensive line, which gave Tony Hunt little running room and protected Anthony Morelli sporadically.
We didn't win this game today, Paterno groused. Illinois lost it. Illinois gave us a couple of easy ones. We didn't go out there and beat them. Our defense kept us in the game until Illinois made a couple of mistakes.
The Lions scored nine points in the final 1:20, thwarting Illinois' comeback hopes on Dan Connor's safety and Anthony Scirrotto's 29-yard touchdown on the ensuing free kick. Those scores were enough to turn a precarious 17-12 lead into a comfortable victory.
But while the Nittany Lions (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) maintained their hopes of landing in a January bowl game, they fizzled on offense for the second time in as many weeks. A week after surrendering seven sacks and losing two quarterbacks to concussions against Michigan, Penn State made Illinois' defense look better than it has at any time since Dick Butkus was on campus. The Lions managed just one offensive touchdown against an opponent that was surrendering 25.6 points a game through its first six games and were outgained 358 yards to 184.
Those sobering numbers made for a tense scene in the postgame locker room. Paterno, who at halftime had urged the defense to score points, didn't see much in the second half to lighten his mood.
He just wasn't happy, receiver Deon Butler said. He wasn't [saying], 'Great effort, guys.' He just said, 'lousy.' He wasn't too happy with the effort. A win is a win, and I know he's glad we won, but he also knows we have to play better to beat the better teams in the Big Ten.
Penn State needed 37 minutes, 27 seconds to reach the end zone on Saturday. The Lions' breakthrough didn't occur until midway through the third quarter, when Morelli flipped a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kevin Darling. The score followed a diving reception by Terrell Golden on third-and-6 and gave the Lions a 10-9 lead.
A few minutes later, Paul Posluszny stripped quarterback Juice Williams on a third-down scramble, and cornerback Tony Davis scooped up the loose ball for a 6-yard touchdown and a 17-9 Penn State lead.
Illinois answered with a 36-yard Jason Reda field goal, but that was as close as it would get. With their loss, the Illini fell to 2-6 and 1-3 in the conference.
The teams set the tone for the entire afternoon by exchanging field goals in the first quarter. Kevin Kelly capped Penn State's first possession with a career-long 49-yard kick and Reda answered with a 41-yarder to finish off an impressive 12-play drive.
The star of the first half was punter Jeremy Kapinos, who punted 51 and 49 yards to twice pin Illinois inside its 20-yard line. Kapinos finished with 365 yards on eight punts and passed Ralph Giacomarro to become the school leader in career punting yardage. His was one of the only smiling faces in the media room after the game.
I felt pretty good, obviously, he said. I hit the ball pretty well. In a game like this, punting and kicking is going to be magnified 10 times. I didn't think I was going to be used eight times, but when duty calls, you've got to go.
Otherwise, the Lions did little to impress early in the game. Their uninspired play-calling came in for particular scorn. Boos rained down from the stands when Derrick Williams was stopped for no gain on an option play on third-and-2 late in the first quarter.
Penn State's problems became more acute after Rashard Mendenhall dashed 79 yards down the right sideline — the longest run from scrimmage against Penn State since at least 1974 — to set up Reda's second field goal, a 21-yarder that gave the Illini a 6-3 lead early in the second quarter. The junior kicker added a 40-yard field goal later in the quarter as Illinois took advantage of a 17-yard interception return by linebacker Brit Miller.
Nobody on Penn State's offense had much of a chance to excel individually. Tony Hunt carried 19 times, but could only manage 52 yards.
Coming off a concussion that left his playing status in question earlier in the week, Morelli played a courageous game, completing 18 of 34 passes for 144 yards in the face of heavy pressure. He was sacked twice and tossed an interception. Said Paterno, It's tough when you can't get any rhythm. We're so inconsistent up front.
Paterno said he might have worked the players too hard in practice the week before the game, but it sounded more like idle speculation than a real rationale for the team's performance.
Moments later, he halfheartedly dismissed the suggestion that Penn State suffered a letdown after last week's 17-10 loss to Michigan.
I don't know how you can have a letdown when you've lost three games and we're trying to have a good year, he said. If you have a letdown, you're not much of a football player.
And then he abruptly walked off the stage.
I don't have anything good to say, Paterno said. We're all wasting our time. I'm not a very happy warrior, so I'll see you all later.