CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois coach Tim Beckman might want to go looking for players elsewhere.
And perhaps everywhere.
An inspired Penn State team thumped disoriented Illinois 35-7 to begin Big Ten play Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Matt McGloin passed for 211 yards and a touchdown and rushed for two scores in the romp.
The game marked the first meeting between the schools since Illinois coaches visited State College looking to poach Penn State players after this past summer’s announcement of NCAA sanctions.
“It definitely felt personal,” Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges said. “It was personal from everything that was going on between us and their coaches and our coaches.”
Hodges’ fellow senior linebacker, Michael Mauti, personified the game’s personal nature, criticizing schools at the Big Ten media days that aggressively recruited Penn State players quickly following the NCAA’s announcement. Mauti never mentioned any schools by name, but Illinois represented a source of his ire.
Mauti stayed away from the spotlight this past week — until Saturday. He intercepted two passes, forced a fumble and led a defense that helped Penn State (3-2) build a 21-0 halftime lead.
“It’s a Big Ten game,” Mauti said. “That was our Big Ten competition. We get up for those games.”
Coach Bill O’Brien also kept his thoughts about Beckman and the Fighting Illini (2-3) hidden this past week. His actions Saturday spoke volumes.
O’Brien bypassed any pregame banter with Beckman. When the game ended, O’Brien dashed toward the Illinois sideline, shook Beckman’s hand, participated in a network television interview and sprinted to the locker room.
“It’s a Big Ten win,” O’Brien said. “It’s a really big win for us to get off on the right foot in the Big Ten. These games are not easy. This conference is tough, so anytime you can get off on the right foot that’s a big deal.”
Did beating Illinois make the win more satisfying?
“It’s just a Big Ten win,” he said. “It’s a big win. It’s something our players really worked hard for and our coaching staff. Good team win.”
Penn State’s performance added to Beckman’s problems. A disappointing crowd of 46,734 on a gorgeous day illustrated the apathy toward his program in central Illinois. Many fans arrived late and left after Zach Zwinak’s 1-yard run with 14:03 left gave the Nittany Lions a four-touchdown lead.
Both teams started using reserves midway through the fourth quarter. Beckman never turned to Ryan Nowicki, the offensive lineman that transferred from Penn State to Illinois.
“Disappointed is the least word I guess you could say,” Beckman said. “I know our football team is hurting.”
The Nittany Lions, on the other hand, are returning to full psychological strength after season-opening losses to Ohio University and Virginia. They have outscored their past three opponents 93-27, a surge that boosts their confidence entering next weekend’s homecoming game against undefeated Northwestern (5-0).
Penn State also appears to be returning to full physical strength. Two key parts of the offense, sophomore tailback Bill Belton and sophomore left tackle Donovan Smith, returned from ankle injuries.
Belton rushed for 65 yards on 16 carries. Smith combined with starting linemates Matt Stankiewitch, John Urschel, Miles Dieffenbach and Mike Farrell to control an Illinois defensive front that includes potential high NFL draft picks Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown.
“We were pumped,” Stankiewitch said. “We knew going into this game that they would be a physical team up front and we knew we would all have to be clicking as one heartbeat to get a win.”
Two players who factored little into the preseason plans played major roles in the victory. Sophomore Zwinak had
Penn State’s best rushing game of the season, gaining 100 yards on 19 carries and scoring twice. When the season started, Zwinak, a sophomore recruited as a fullback, appeared to be the team’s fifth rushing option behind Belton, Derek Day, Michael Zordich and Curtis Dukes.
Junior tight end Matt Lehman, who joined the program as a walk-on after starting his career at Division II Shippensburg, grabbed a team-high five passes for 70 yards.
Lehman absorbed a powerful — and illegal — helmet-to-helmet blow from Illinois safety Earnest Thomas after a 21-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. Thomas was ejected from the game because of the hit. Lehman went to the locker room but returned to catch four second-half passes.
Lehman’s tough-guy response to the hit further energized the Nittany Lions, who woke up Saturday to see a headline in The News-Gazette of Champaign asking: “Who are these guys?”
On Saturday, they were 28 points better than the home team.
“Every game is personal,” Mauti said. “That’s the way we feel as a team. Football is personal. You’re not supposed to be like that, but when you don’t play with that type of feeling, it’s tough. That’s how our team feels every game given what we have gone through. We have a tough team and tough coaches and hopefully everybody in our program can keep the ball rolling and get some wins.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy