Penn State crushes Illinois 35-7 in Big Ten opener

Woo. What a wild weekend. It seems like a long, long time since Penn State polished off a refreshingly comfortable win over Illinois on Saturday. I was having a good time with some PSU friends at Tonic East while simultaneously trying to keep track of the football game, and since “having a good time” involved drinking a tower of beer, things are a little bit hazy.

I seem to remember a lot of different halfbacks, and Michael Mauti running a long way. Matt McGloin ran backwards a lot and Sam Ficken missed a couple of field goals, but in the end, everything turned out better than expected. Let’s see what else we can learn from Saturday 35-7 Penn State win.

Zach Zwinak may be Bill O’Brien’s favorite halfback

Bill Belton was healthy, and Derek Day was healthy. Curtis Dukes had apparently gotten over his thigh issue from last week, as well, so it made less than perfect sense that supposed fourth string halfback Zack Zwinak got the majority of the carries in Champaign. Although Zwinak did score Penn State’s first touchdown on a one-yard plunge in the first quarter, he didn’t get his second carry of the game until Penn State’s fifth possession.

Once Zwinak got on a role, though, he didn’t relinquish his grip on the halfback role until the game was well in hand. Zwinak ran for 109 yards on 19 carries without having one carry longer than 14 yards. He just plowed ahead, gaining solid yardage on seemingly every trip through the line. Belton started the game and played reasonably well (16 carries, 67 yards), but O’Brien clearly favored Zwinak in the second and third quarters, when Penn State took over the game. It will be interesting to see who starts at halfback this week when Penn State plays Northwestern.

Michael Mauti nearly had a 100-yard interception return

With Penn State holding a 21-0 lead late in the first half, Illinois desperately needed a score to give the team some hope of a comeback. Starting the drive at the Illinois 22-yard line with just over three minutes remaining, quarterback Nate Scheelhaase drove the Illini down the field. Scheelhaase connected with wide receiver Ryan Lankford four times before the drive was grounded to a half at Penn State’s four yard line. It was fourth down and goal with 19 seconds remaining in the half when Scheelhaase tried to connected with Lankford in the endzone. However, Penn State linebacker Mauti stepped in front of the pass, snatched it out of the air and began sprinting the other way.

What began as a great defensive play soon turned into a chance to put an early dagger into Illinois. Mauti got to the left sideline with a cavalry of blockers and it certainly looked like he had a chance to score. Mauti was tracked down inside the five-yard line by Illinois quarterback Miles Osei (who I suppose was in the game as a wide receiver or halback; it was Scheelhasse with threw the pass). Although at first it seemed that Mauti had scored a ridiculous touchdown, the replay review showed that his knee hit the ground just before the ball crossed the goal line. However, the review also showed that one second was remaining on the clock…

Sam Ficken missed both field goals that he attempted

Already up by three scores, O’Brien opted to try the short field goal, but Ficken had his attempt blocked by linebacker Mike Svetina. I know that not all blocks are necessarily the kicker’s fault, but this is the second short attempt that Ficken has had knocked down this season. I’m guessing he just didn’t kick it very high.

Earlier in the game, a crazy McGloin sack in which he ran backwards for at least 10 yards caused O’Brien to attempt a 47-yard field goal on 4th and 16. Of course, Ficken missed this as well, which caused me to wonder what is the most yards to gain on fourth down from the 30-yard line that would still cause O’Brien to send out the offense. I’m thinking 10 yards right now, but it might be as much as 12. I hope someone asks the coach this on Tuesday, or I might have to go down to State College myself.

McGloin only completed three passes each to Allen Robinson and Kyle Carter

Hooray other Penn State receivers! Carter and Robinson were clearly the focus of the Illini defense, and McGloin had a lot trouble finding open receivers in this game. However, thanks to a solid running game and some decent protection from the offensive line, McGloin managed to still complete 18 of 30 passes for 211 yards.

Tight end Matt Lehman was the star receiver for Penn State. He caught five passes for 70 yards, which included a 23-yard touchdown catch in the seam that he took a big hit on. Alex Kenney caught four passes for 24 yards and Brandon Moseby-Felder had three receptions as well. This could be the end of Allen Robinson’s Heisman campaign (of which I was the president of), but it’s good to know McGloin can find other receivers when his primary targets aren’t open.

The Penn State defense played a good game against a good quarterback

I was a bit worried about how the Penn State defense, and particuarly the secondary, would perform in this game. The unit was carved up in the second half against Ohio’s quarterback Tyler Tettleton and gave up the winning score to Virginia in the fourth quarter. Against Navy the back end went untested, and Temple quarterback Chris Coyer seemed to miss a few open chances last week.

When you take into account that Scheelhaase was healthy enough to play the full game without intervention from backup Reilly O’Toole and that Illinois was returning their veteran tackle Graham Pocic from injury, then this game becomes the PSU defense’s best game of the season. Except for a 52-yard second quarter run by Donovonn Young, Illinois had virtually no running game to speak of, and Scheelhaase needed all of 42 passes just to throw for 270 yards.

The Illinois touchdown was scored on a trick play featuring a throw from halfback Josh Ferguson to receiver Spencer Harris. Had the Illini stuck to their conventional offense, they may not have found the endzone at all. They would have had some points, however, if not for a missed 27-yard field goal by kicker Taylor Zalewski following the long Young run.

Penn State has now won three games in a row and is 3-2 overall. The Illini have fallen to 2-3 after losing their second straight. Follow me on Twitter @apy5000.

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