John Butler is one of those coaches that tends to jump around a lot.
The Penn State defensive coordinator had plenty of reasons to pogo up and down — sometimes five yards onto the playing surface — at Beaver Stadium on Saturday when Penn State followed up a dismal defensive showing last weekend with an afternoon of big plays in crucial defensive situations to help clinch a 24-17 win over Illinois.
“The defense did a great job,” safety Ryan Keiser said. “We made plays when we had to.”
In the end, Keiser’s second interception of the season sealed Penn State’s win in overtime.
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The senior safety wasn’t the only player who factored in on that play. His defensive backfield partner, Adrian Amos, went up alongside intended Illinois receiver Spencer Harris and tipped Nathan Scheelhaase’s first pass in overtime. Keiser, who is playing with a splint on his left hand and is just four weeks removed from having surgery to repair it, swooped in and snagged the ball before it fell to the ground.
“Plays like that, Keiser’s always made. I remember my freshman year when Keiser was on scout teams or anything, he was always around the ball. Any tipped ball, Keiser always picked off,” Amos said. “In practice since I’ve been here I’ve seen it all the time. He’s always around the ball. Keiser’s real religious so I’ll be like, ‘It’s heaven sent. God always puts you in the right place at the right time.’ He’s just always around the ball.”
Keiser wasn’t the only one with perfect timing on a chilly afternoon that saw Penn State’s offense cool off after a hot start produced a 14-3 halftime lead.
Jordan Lucas got the defense going when he killed Illinois’ first drive of the game with an interception. Penn State’s offense turned Lucas’s second interception of the season into seven points. The defense came up with another stop, forcing an incomplete pass as time ran out in the second quarter before safety Malcolm Willis was flagged for roughing the passer to give Illinois the chance to hit a 20-yard field goal and cut Penn State’s lead to 14-3.
“I think that it was great that they battled the whole game,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said.
In the second half, the Nittany Lion defense began to bend. It didn’t break completely.
The Illini scored on two of its first three drives and averaged six yards per play on two touchdown drives. But in between those drives, Penn State’s defense came up with a big stop at the goal line.
Early in the fourth quarter, Illinois faced fourth-and-one from Penn State’s 4-yard line. The Illini tried a short pass, but linebacker Mike Hull was there to knock it away and hand possession back to his team’s offense.
“I knew it was a big play,” Hull said. “Any time they’re down in our territory threatening to score, you’re playing (all out) and you’ve got to make a play for your team. Fortunately I was able to do that.”
Faced with the prospect of stopping the third-straight dual-threat quarterback after having played Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, the Nittany Lion defense was able to prevent Scheelhaase from generating big yards with his legs. The Illini senior finished with 35 yards on eight carries while running back Josh Ferguson added just 34 yards on 10 attempts.
Although the Illini had given up a Big Ten worst 18 sacks coming into the game, Penn State had trouble getting Scheelhaase down behind the line of scrimmage.
Until it mattered most.
Looking to move his team into position for a potential game-winning field goal, Scheelhaase was flushed out of the pocket in the final moments of regulation. Penn State defensive end Anthony Zettel chased him down and finally crumpled the Illini quarterback to the ground.
Butler was jumping up and down before readying his defense for the upcoming overtime.
“Definitely at the end, when we needed to get a big stop, that was definitely a good feeling,” Zettel said.