CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Penn State was in trouble, with the offense wasting opportunities and threatening to blow another game.
No worries, though. The 11 guys on the other side of the ball for the Nittany Lions had everything under control.
What else is new?
"It's Penn State defense," linebacker Bani Gbadyu said. "It's always been like that."
And like this for the PSU offense ...
Joe Paterno and the coaches went the conservative route in the first half, dumbing things down with short passes and running plays.
Typical road game for the Lions.
Penn State led just 7-3 at the break, and the thought certainly had to be creeping into peoples' minds that one blown play - just like last week's blocked punt against Iowa - and this one could slip away, as well.
Not this time.
No such fluky play occurred, and Penn State's defense did what it usually does. The Lions clamped down, baffled Illinois' offense in the third quarter and, as defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said, won the game right there.
The Illini chose to go with the wind in the third quarter - a gusty wind - and try to grab the lead. Their offense fizzled, however, as they ran only seven plays in the quarter.
"You didn't see them have one first down in the third quarter, and I think that's when the game was won right then and there," Bradley said.
The final stats - Illinois had 20 first downs and 393 yards of total offense - are misleading because a lot of that production came with the game already out of reach. When it was still close, the Illini were turned away at every key juncture.
"Our defense hasn't been the problem," quarterback Daryll Clark said. "It's us [on offense], from the start. But I knew those guys were going to continue to play as well, as they did, and hold their offense."
It doesn't really make sense why the Lions' defense was so good, considering:
n An All-American, Sean Lee, was on the sideline with a knee injury.
n His backup, Nate Stupar, played sparingly because of an ankle injury.
n Standout defensive tackle Jared Odrick was double-teamed on almost every play and wasn't a factor (two tackles).
n The Lions have an inexperienced secondary and a safety, Nick Sukay, who looks lost at times.
Regardless, at the end of the day, Penn State's defense usually finds a way to do the job. Year after year and with a revolving door of players.
"It's not really the players, it's just the scheme," Gbadyu said. "It's just how everybody wants to go out there and doesn't want to let the guy down right next to him."
"That's just what we live by, what we're known for," linebacker Navorro Bowman said.
It's still hard to believe Penn State's defense blew the game in the fourth quarter last year against Iowa, squandering a nine-point lead. There also was the 17-point lead that PSU blew at Michigan State in the 2007 regular-season finale.
Those games were aberrations, though.
Now, the collapse against Mark Sanchez and USC in the Rose Bowl last season was different in that PSU was clearly outmanned, but you can count on one hand the number of times that's happened in recent memory.
"The players bowed up today," Bradley said of his defense.
That's the norm for Penn State.
Always has been, always will be.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.