UNIVERSITY PARK - Illinois gave Ohio State a good battle in a 24-13 loss last week, although many people figured it was because the Buckeyes played poorly.
Penn State may have played poorly Saturday, but the Fighting Illini also came in with a good game plan that was geared toward taking advantage of the Nittany Lions' weaknesses.
"It was a big win for us," said Illinois coach Ron Zook, who removed his name from the hot seat conversation for at least a week. "I think we talked about all week that Illinois has never won here. ... Our guys got into it and did it."
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
PSU safety Jacob Fagnano loses his helmet while tackling Illinois running back Troy Pollard.
The Illini had been 0-6 in Happy Valley dating back to the first game of the series in 1954.
Zook's gambler reputation was evident from the start as he decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 29 on the game's opening series. The Illini not only got that first down, they gained confidence knowing that they could establish control in the running game.
"I thought we could get it," Zook said. "I thought it was important we get it, particularly early in the game."
Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure carried 27 times for 119 yards - right on his season average - and led an offense that had its way with Penn State's depleted defense.
"We have to run the ball," Leshoure said. "Not only to establish the run, but just for our quarterback. He's young, and we just have to get him going."
Nathan Scheelhaase, a redshirt freshman, did get going and showed confidence with his arm and his legs. He completed 15-of-19 passes for 151 yards and a TD to go along with 61 yards rushing on eight carries.
"Nathan is getting better, as we said he would," Zook said. "You can't buy experience. He just keeps getting better. He keeps working. ... Also, Nathan came out and executed."
The only area the Illini didn't execute was catching punts. Jack Ramsey fumbled two of them deep in his own territory, but Illinois caught a break because PSU's red zone offense is so bad that it led to only two field goals.
"I catch punts every day; I never fumble, I never muff a punt," Ramsey said.
The Illini took the lead for good on an 18-yard catch and run for a TD from Scheelhaase to A.J. Jenkins, who had seven catches for 76 yards. That made it 7-3, and linebacker Nate Bussey tipped and returned an interception 16 yards for a score and 14-3 lead.
Illinois regrouped after Rob Bolden hit Derek Moye on an 80-yard TD that cut it to 14-10. The Illini came right back with a drive that resulted in a 50-yard field goal by Derek Dimke, who was 4-for-4 on the day.
Zook pulled out some trickery in the third quarter when he called a halfback pass on third-and-goal at the 4. Jason Ford took an option pitch and lofted it over the defense to wide-open tight end Evan Wilson for a 27-13 lead.
"We wanted to make up for last week [the loss to Ohio State], and we had a good week," Ford said. "We were trying to set a pace. We wanted to punish them early."