Illinois’ offense sparkled in the first half, and the defense saved the day in the second half. Combined, that provided the difference in the Fighting Illini’s 27-20 victory over Penn State.
Illinois’ offense sparkled in the first half, and the defense saved the day in the second half.
Combined, that provided the difference in the Fighting Illini’s 27-20 victory over 21st-ranked Penn State.
As hard-earned a win for the Illini as they’ve had since 2001, when they last captured the Big Ten, it might prove to be the outcome that convinces others that Ron Zook’s outfit, at 4-1 overall and 2-0 in the conference, is an authentic team.
That’s believed with certainty in the locker room, where the mood is a far cry from two years ago, when the Nittany Lions beat Illinois by 53 points.
“It was 100 to nothing,” free safety and free spirit Brit Miller recalled of the 2005 hammering. “But Zook has a saying: ‘If you could see it, it wouldn’t be believing.’ It’s not believing anymore. We can see it.”
So could the 57,078 fans in jam-packed Memorial Stadium, though at times if the majority were in disbelief, it was understandable. The outcome wasn’t secured until nine seconds remained, when Kevin Mitchell’s one-handed interception of an Anthony Morelli pass on the Illini 9 finished the Lions off, guaranteeing Illinois a win over a ranked team for the first time in six years and 20 games.
It was the fifth turnover for Penn State (3-2, 0-2), the fourth in consecutive series deep in Illinois territory, which baffled Penn State head coach Joe Paterno. Two other interceptions and a fumble by Morelli on the Lions’ penultimate series helped the Illini, held to two Jason Reda field goals in the second half, hang on.
“I thought we were going to put the game out of reach,” said Illinois offensive left tackle Xavier Fulton, a Homewood-Flossmoor grad. “The defense made huge plays.”
Mitchell’s was the last of them, and the most dramatic. Morelli heaved the ball toward the south end zone from the Penn State 40. Receiver Deon Butler was momentarily by himself at the Illini 7, ready to catch the ball and turn for the end zone. Suddenly, here was Mitchell, catching up and rising to not just get his right hand on the ball, but corral it at the 9-yard line. One kneel later, game over, and many Illinois players ran into the new north grandstand to exchange high-fives with their fellow classmates.
“I knew the game would come down to us,” Mitchell said of his teammates on defense. “We want the game in our hands.”
That wasn’t Zook’s plan going in, nor the expectation at the half, when the Illini held a 21-17 lead and were moving the ball consistently. Quarterback Isiah “Juice” Williams was 11-of-19, and precocious freshman receiver Arrelious Benn had returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and caught a Williams pass for a 29-yard touchdown.
More of the same was expected in the second half, but the Lions pressured Williams more and forced him into throwing early. That threw him off enough to create five straight incompletions, prompting Zook to put in Eddie McGee early in the fourth quarter. The switch proved propitious when McGee broke a 53-yard run off right tackle, setting up Reda's 33-yard field goal with seven minutes remaining.
But the Lions, outgaining Illinois 171-143 in the second half, kept going sour inside the Illini 20. Linebacker J Leman picked off Morelli at the Illinois 3 just before the third quarter ended. Cornerback Vontae Davis grabbed a Morelli pass at the Illinois 18 early in the fourth. Morelli, diving for a first down at the Illinois 9 on the next series, was hammered by safety Justin Harrison and lost the football with 2 minutes, 12 seconds
to play. And after the Illini failed to run out the clock, Mitchell performed his heroics.
“We just had to hold on there,” Zook said. “We preach that we can’t give up big plays, and to get turnovers.”
The latter was true, but the Illini gave up eight plays of 15 or more yards.
It seemed like more, especially to Zook.
“I feel like I played,” he said. “I’m at a loss for words.”
A loss? That was the last thing anyone expected to hear from Zook, whose team is two wins from bowl eligibility after winning no more than three games in any of the last four seasons.
“It feels like we’re finally a football team, and a school that cares about football,” Miller said. “They have something to care about now.”