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Penn State-Illinois notebook

September 30, 2012
Compiled by Cory Giger and Neil Rudel (nrudel@altoonamirror.com) , The Altoona Mirror

Zwinak carries load for PSU

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Zach Zwinak surprised everyone, including his teammates, with his breakout 100-yard rushing effort Saturday.

"I didn't know he had that in him," guard John Urschel said. "He was knocking people back. He took it to a whole different level. ... I think he may have knocked some people out of the game."

Urschel then added that Zwinak "was punishing the defense," which was evident from the 6-foot-1, 232-pounder's hard running style. He kept churning and churning, never going down on first contact, and bulldozed his way upfield throughout the afternoon.

So on a day that starter Bill Belton (16 carries for 65 yards) and Derek Day (four for 14) returned from injuries, it was third-stringer Zwinak who excelled with 100 yards and two TDs on 19 carries.

"In this game, I felt he was the guy who was getting the ball downhill," coach Bill O'Brien said. "He was seeing the cut and running physical. He's a big kid, and he can run."

Zwinak entered the day with 21 carries for 96 yards, after gaining only 7 yards on three carries last season. He redshirted in 2010 and tore an ACL in practice in October of that year.

"Just to get on the field and get the carries is what matters most, and whether it be 100 yards or 5 yards, it's still yards," Zwinak said.

"I know I'm not as shifty as some of the other guys," he added. "I really try to focus on running downhill. That's really where I try to find my success."

Some reporters had fun asking Zwinak what it was like to run over defenders - in one case he knocked the helmet off standout Illinois tackle Akeem Spence - and the young man could only give a humble smile.

"I don't know how to really describe it," he said. "It's something I feel you have to experience."

Told most reporters will never experience that, he laughed and said, "It's a good feeling, but it all comes down to the coaching in the past. You've got to get your pads low, you've got to keep your legs moving. And sometimes you don't realize if you hit somebody or not, you just keep going, it's momentum."

Lehman shakes off big hit for big day

Bill O'Brien's offense features the tight end, and Saturday was walk-on Matt Lehman's turn to shine.

Lehman made a team-high five catches for 70 yards - both career highs - including a 21-yard touchdown in the second quarter that gave the Lions a 21-0 lead.

"He is getting better every week," O'Brien said. "He catches the ball well, and he's understanding our offense better."

Lehman needed to be helped off the field after his TD when he took a helmet-to-helmet shot that resulted in a 15-yard penalty and the ejection of Illinois safety Earnest Thomas.

Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges called the foul "cheap." Lehman preferred to look at the film before commenting, but he was glad he could continue.

O'Brien originally feared Lehman suffered a concussion, but after he was able to answer some questions, doctors ruled he just had his wind knocked out.

"They asked me the score and what play we just ran, and I got the questions right," the 6-foot-6, 258-pound Lehman said. "I got hit pretty good, but I tried to get through it because I didn't want to come out of the game."

Lehman now has nine catches for 137 yards and two TDs on the season. On a day when leading receiver Allen Robinson was held to three catches for 35 yards, Lehman enjoyed his extra chances.

"When teams are scouting us, they have to account for Allen, and that gives more opportunities for me," he said. "I always had confidence in my ability. It was just a matter of showing the coaches what I could do. Coming from pretty much nowhere, and walking on the team and being able to contribute like I am is pretty cool. It's a credit to Coach O'Brien and the way he uses us."

Second-guessing himself

After Michael Mauti's 99-yard interception return put the ball at the Illinois 1 with one second left in the first half, and the Lions leading 21-0, O'Brien decided against going for a touchdown.

He regretted it afterward - and not just because Sam Ficken's 18-yard field goal was blocked.

O'Brien said he thought the ball had been spotted at the 2.

"Hindsight being 20-20, I should have gone for a touchdown there," he said. "But we have to execute better on the field goal."

Illinois drops 7th straight Big Ten game

Illinois coach Tim Beckman has much bigger problems to worry about than the anger felt toward him from the PSU camp. Beckman's team has been crushed three times already - also 52-24 by Louisiana Tech and 45-14 at Arizona State - and Saturday the Illini lost their seventh consecutive conference game going back to last season.

"Disappointed is the least word, I guess you could say" said Beckman, in his first season at Illinois after three years at Toledo. "I know our football team is hurting, and as we spoke to them in the locker room, it's time to step up and see what you're all about."

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, coming off an ankle injury, wasn't much of a threat running the ball, which hurts Illinois' offense. He gained just 7 yards on 11 carries, and while he completed 28-of-46 for 270 yards, he also was picked off twice, including a big play on Michael Mauti's 99-yard interception return at the end of the first half.

"It felt really good today," Scheelhaase said of his ankle. "I got nicked a little bit there, but it felt good on the plays I was in."

Beckman has to be feeling some pressure from fans for the team's poor start.

"We know we're going to be playing some physical football teams here coming up, and we've just got to become a more physical team and do what we need to do, plus stay healthy," the coach said.

Butterworth improves, not Ficken

Place-kicker Sam Ficken missed a 47-yard field goal wide left with 8:47 to go in the first half, then had an 18-yard attempt blocked at the end of the first half. Punter Alex Butterworth had been struggling, but he averaged 43.3 yards on three kicks.

Injury update

Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong limped off the field after the second-half kickoff with cramps and didn't return. "He's fine," defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. ... LT Donovan Smith (ankle) didn't start but did come in on the second series. Mike Farrell got the start at LT and Adam Gress at RT.

News and notes

PSU's game captains were QB Shane McGregor, DT James Terry and DB Jake Fagnano. ... Mauti's 99-yard interception return was the longest in PSU history, surpassing the previous mark of 98 held by Wayne Berfield against Boston in 1958. ... Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall, an Illinois product, was on hand for the game and was recognized during the second quarter.

 
 

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