This week’s Citizens Bank button declared “Burst Champaign’s Bubble”. It was a very clear message when often the buttons issued at Penn State are ambiguous and can be read either way.
In front of us a man had made his own button that said: “Crucify and Deny the Cowardly Illini.” That more aptly described our mood. We didn’t want the Penn State team to just burst Illinois’ bubble. We wanted them to crucify the Illini!
Illinois was the only Big Ten football team that actively descended upon State College in July to recruit Penn State players when the NCAA sanctions were announced that allowed current Penn State players to transfer to other schools without penalty.
While Illinois was able to recruit only one Penn State player, hard feelings remain among Penn State fans about Illinois’ attempt.
The result is that Penn State fans have now found a new Big Ten team to despise, one that as far as I can remember was a team that most of us felt somewhat neutral towards before this summer.
What I mean is this: in the pecking order of Penn State animosity towards Big Ten teams, Illinois in the past would have probably been behind Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and probably even Michigan State. No more. Illinois has moved up several slots and is now definitely #2. At least for now.
But the problem with “crucifying” Illinois at Memorial Stadium was that we didn’t know whether the Penn State team’s notable improvements in the last two wins against Navy and Temple would stick in the Big Ten.
Nor did we know how the Illinois team would react to their disastrous 52-24 loss against Louisiana Tech last week. It’s not good to play an angry team, especially on their home field, and that is what the Penn State team was facing.
And so we made our way up seven long concrete ramps to the nosebleed section of Memorial Stadium to sit in a very steep balcony where it was dizzying getting down to our seats.
The view of the field was quite good, but our ability to make noise to support the team was muted at best. It was not for the faint of heart or for those with a fear of heights. Although it is not much different than what Penn State has done with its visitors by putting them in the corner of the north end zone.
The entire Blue Band and the cheerleaders were close to the field below us. It’s always good to see them at an away game. They make only one away game trip each year, and this was the one they chose. Outside the Penn State alumni association tailgate before the game, the Penn State and Illinois band members were dueling each other musically. It was clear that they were having a great time.
We were expecting that it would be a close game. We were optimistic that Penn State might eke out a three or four point win. But we could also see Penn State losing by three or four points. We certainly didn’t expect domination.
Especially when the first possession was a three-and-out.
But then luck came Penn State’s way. A punt by Alex Butterworth to the Illinois 27 was fumbled, and Penn State’s special teams recovered on the Illinois 26.
After making one first down on three running plays, Penn State’s drive stalled at the Illinois seven-yard line. But when kicker Sam Ficken’s field goal was good for three points, Illinois was called for roughing the kicker. That gave Penn State an automatic first down on the four-yard line.
Here is where we saw a critical difference between coach Bill O’Brien and former coach Joe Paterno. Joe Paterno would have likely declined the penalty and let the three points stand.
My husband Terry turned to me, and exclaimed, “You never take points off the board!”
But Bill O’Brien did. Rushers Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak made the short yardage runs necessary to score the first touchdown of the game.
So Penn State’s first touchdown basically capitalized on Illinois mistakes to keep the drive alive.
The defense stopped Illinois on its first drive. Then the offense drove 60 yards down the field in eight plays. This was better. McGloin mixed up his receivers and Bill Belton carried the ball. With 6:29 left in the first quarter, the score was Penn State 14-0.
This was beginning to feel like it was going to be a fun afternoon, and the Penn State fans in the nosebleed section were getting very boisterous.
But it wasn’t necessarily pretty in the second quarter. Both Illinois and Penn State had drives that wound up in field goal attempts, and both kickers missed. Sam Ficken’s missed kick was a 47-yard attempt, something that wasn’t exactly in his range.
Relying on the rushing strength of Zach Zwinak, Penn State kept moving the chains and then McGloin threw a 21-yard pass to Matt Lehman for a touchdown. Then something occurred that I have never witnessed before: an Illinois defender was called for a helmut-to-helmut personal foul and EJECTED from the game.
The score was Penn State 21-0 with 3:10 left. The penalty, assessed on the kickoff, didn’t help Penn State much. But perhaps the ejection did. We will never know.
Illinois started gaining momentum towards the end of the second half. Under the precise passing attack of Nathan Scheelhasse, the Illini drove to the Penn State four-yard line with 19 seconds left on the clock.
Here is where we started getting worried. The momentum seemed to be shifting and it looked like the score would be 21-7 at the half. We had been at Memorial Stadium in 1994 when Illinois was up by three touchdowns and Penn State came back to win the game. We were worried that the reverse could happen.
But Michael Mauti saved the half. He intercepted Scheelhasse’s pass and ran it back 99 yards for what appeared to be a touchdown. It was a very entertaining run, indeed.
Up in the nosebleed section, we were all going nuts. But it wasn’t a touchdown. Mauti’s knee was down at the 1-yard line with one second left.
The next play with one second left on the clock befuddled Terry. He felt for certain that Matt McGloin would make the quarterback sneak for a touchdown. Instead Bill O’Brien chose to have Sam Ficken kick a field goal, which Illinois blocked.
And so it was a strange ending to the first half. Still, the defense had made a big play to stop Illinois. At the half we were up 21-0. We could have been 28-0. Or we could also have been 21-7. I was satisfied with 21-0.
In my mind, there was plenty to celebrate and two stellar college football bands to enjoy at half time on a glorious September afternoon. This was fun.
In the end, the score was 35-7. There were moments in the second half that we thought momentum might shift back to Illinois, especially after they scored their first touchdown but it never really did.
Michael Mauti made sure of that. He intercepted another pass in the middle of the third quarter, and at the end of the third quarter, the Memorial Stadium stands emptied out. Seems the Illini fans have less patience than the Penn State fans. Usually Penn State fans wait until about 8 minutes left in the game.
Then, of course, there was the band of die hard Penn Staters whooping it up in the nosebleed gallery. We stayed to the very end.
Champaign’s bubble was burst. Coach Bill O’Brien even found Illinois coach Tim Beckman and shook his hand quickly in what my friend Greg who observed it on TV called a “drive by” handshake.
I was wondering if he would even do that. But O’Brien also didn’t run up the score. He chose to use a lot of second string players in the fourth quarter.
As for my feelings about the season, at this point, I’m a bit more optimistic about Penn State’s chances to win some games in the Big Ten, despite the loss of seventeen scholarship players due to NCAA sanctions.
The offense has become quite diverse and balanced. The defense is making big plays. If they can continue that, and also get better as they develop new talent, we should see some more wins.
In the meantime, this team has become fun to watch!