STATE COLLEGE —
When Illinois coaches were criticized for setting up shop near Penn State’s campus last summer to see if any Nittany Lions were interested in transferring, Michael Mauti was their most vocal critic.
The Illini were hardly the only team looking, but Mauti singled out Illinois, saying he had a problem with anyone who would “steal” the Nittany Lions’ players in the wake of Penn State’s child-sex scandal and NCAA sanctions.
On Saturday, the senior linebacker backed up that talk with six tackles and a pair of game-changing interceptions that Penn State (3-2) turned into a 35-7 road win to open Big Ten play.
“It was sweet, that’s what it was,” Mauti said. “We haven’t forgotten about what happened in the summer. Yeah, to be honest with you we had that in the back of our minds and that kept us going. I mean, it’s all about opening up the conference strong and keeping things going.”
The Nittany Lions started the season in what by now is a familiar story of turmoil, uncertain where their offense would come from after the post-sanctions transfers of quarterback Rob Bolden and running back Silas Redd. Now they’ve won three straight and Bolden’s replacement, Matt McGloin, has become one of the Big Ten’s better quarterbacks.
McGloin threw for 211 yards and a touchdown and ran for two more scores, and running back Zach Zwinak had 101 yards and two touchdowns. Penn State coach Bill O’Brien credited his offensive line.
“They’re physical players and we told them from Day One of training camp that we were going to try and be a physical offense, a north-and-south running team, and they’ve done a nice job of that.”
The turnovers – three in all – and eight costly penalties left Illinois (2-3) with a second-straight blowout loss after last weekend’s 52-24 beating by Louisiana Tech.
“We can’t turn the football over and we’ve got to move the football better,” Illini coach Tim Beckman said. “And we’ve got to tackle and do the things we feel are necessary for us to be successful, and we’re just not getting those done the last two weeks.”
Mauti’s second interception came near midfield late in the third quarter as Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tried to rally the Illini. Mauti’s pick instead set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Zwinak with 14:03 left in the game that sealed the win.
The Nittany Lions must still be wondering how they didn’t turn Mauti’s first interception into points.
With just seconds left in the half. Illinois was desperately trying to put its first points on the scoreboard, and was in position to do it with a fourth-and-goal from the Penn State 7.
Scheelhaase saw receiver Ryan Lankford crossing the field at the goal line, but Mauti stepped in front of the pass, picking it off and charging to his left and the home sideline.
Mauti followed his blockers, running through traffic deep into Illini territory. But he was also running out of gas with Illinois’ Miles Osei on his tail.
Osei, the officials ruled after reviewing the play, got just enough of Mauti to force one of his knees to the turf before the linebacker fell across the goal line. But the review also showed one second left on the clock.
Sam Ficken lined up for a chip-shot field goal that Illinois’ V’Angelo Bentley blocked, keeping the game at 21-0 at the half.
“Ninety-nine yards without a touchdown – that one’s gonna hurt,” Mauti said. “That’s gonna haunt my dreams.”
Illinois finally found the scoreboard early in the third quarter.
Running back Josh Ferguson took the ball from Scheelhaase and threw 22 yards to wide receiver Spencer Harris in the Nittany Lion end zone to cut the gap to 21-7.
Scheelhaase finished with 270 passing yards, going 28 of 46.
Lankford had seven catches for a game-high 104 yards.
“We didn’t play the way we wanted to, but there’s still a lot of football left and the damage that’s been done isn’t season-ending at all,” Scheelhaase said.
Illinois quite literally handed the Nittany Lions the first points of the game.
Less than two minutes into the game, Illini return man Tommy Davis fumbled Alex Butterworth’s punt at the Illinois 26. Penn State’s Michael Fuhrman recovered at the Illinois 26.
The Illini defense held at the 7 but Bentley was flagged for grazing Ficken’s kicking leg on a field goal, try, giving Penn State a first down. Zwinak plowed into the end zone from a yard out for a 7-0 lead with 10:41 left in the first quarter.
The hard feelings between the teams were sometimes clear.
Players exchanged words as they crossed paths on the way to the locker rooms at halftime and had to be separated by officials and staff members from each team.
And Illinois safety Earnest Thomas was ejected from the game after a hard helmet-to-helmet hit on Matt Lehman in the end zone as the tight end caught a second-quarter touchdown. Penn State staff led the groggy Lehman off the field, but he returned and finished with five catches for 70 yards.