A lot was made this week, at least on the Penn State side, about the controversy involving Illinois coach Tim Beckman and as many as seven other members of his coaching staff traveling to State College, Pa., over the summer in hopes of landing a Penn State player or two when the NCAA gave Nittany Lions players free reign to transfer without penalty.
Beckman and Bill O’Brien did not chat on the field prior to the game and their postgame handshake was quicker than a finger snap.
Linebacker Michael Mauti was very vocal in his disapproval of Illinois coming to talk to Penn State players and he made it known on and off the field Saturday.
“Obviously, having to play against these guys, it was sweet,” said Mauti, who had two interceptions and six tackles. “We haven’t forgotten what happened this summer. Yeah, to be honest with you, we had that in the back of our minds and that kept us going.”
Despite those feelings, there was no more noticeable chippiness during Saturday’s game than you’ll see while tuning in to dozens of college football games each week.
“There really wasn’t much that went on. I got a chance to meet Michael Mauti and Jordan Hill at the media day and they were as cool of guys as it gets,” Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “I remember one time I handed the ball off and ran my fake out and Mauti just came up and screamed ‘Man, I could have lit you up right there.’ I said, ‘I appreciate that you didn’t.’ The chance for dirty play was there but they’re not dirty players. They flat-out beat us today.”
A week after being pulled in the first quarter in a loss to Louisiana Tech, Scheelhaase played all the way through Saturday. The junior had career highs in completions (28) and attempts (46) while throwing for 270 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in his first full game of the season.
He left the season opener in the third quarter with an injured ankle and missed the following two games.
“I know Nathan is very competitive and he bounced back after getting dinged up a little bit in the football game,” Beckman said. “He came back in and I’m proud of Nathan. Nathan’s fighting through an injury and he’s trying to help this football team the best way that he possibly can.”
Scheelhaase left the game briefly in the first quarter after taking a big hit. Reilly O’Toole replaced him for one play.
“Obviously, I got nicked up but was able to bounce back. I just took a play off. That’s good to see that if it does get hit — because that was as bad a hit as you can probably get on it — and be able to bounce up and be all right,” Scheelhaase said. “When you’re able to get what you hurt hit and bounce back from it, that means that you’re back to where you need to be. I think it’s back. I felt as good as I have since Week 1.”
Supo Sanni made his return to the Illinois lineup after missing the first four games with a knee injury. The senior safety made a mark early and finished with a career-high 10 tackles and broke up a pass.
“He was rusty, but at the end of the day, having him back there makes us better,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “Not to take anything away from the guys who have been playing, but the reality of it is he’s played a lot of football around here and we knew it would be some bumps because it was his first live action, but moving forward we think we’ll be better in the long run.”
Sanni played more snaps than he and the coaches were anticipating after Earnest Thomas’ ejection and Patrick Nixon-Youman and Steve Hull were shuffled in and out of the game with injuries.
It was the first time Hull and Sanni had played together this season.
“It’s been real tough, but what we try to do is persevere. He’s a real tough guy,” said Sanni, who missed the 2010 season with a torn Achilles’ tendon. “We’re good friends but that’s what football is, that’s what this sport is, you go through the bumps and bruises, of course, as a safety. All you can do is persevere and play hard to get where we want to be.”
Hull, whose only previous action this season was in the Arizona State game before being injured, hurt the shoulder again Saturday but returned to finish the game.
Thomas was ejected after laying a big hit on Penn State tight end Matt Lehman in the end zone while Lehman was catching a touchdown pass. Thomas was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit before being tossed. It was the second helmet-to-helmet penalty called against the Illini on Saturday. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne was also flagged.
“It’s hard, it’s very hard, but all we can do as players is just play,” Sanni said. “The refs are going to do their jobs and we’re going to do ours. If they want to call helmet-to-helmet, all we can do is accept it and go on to the next play and snap it clear.”
The final score would have been worse if not for a hustle play made by Illinois’ Miles Osei. At the end of the first half, Mauti intercepted a Scheelhaase pass at the Penn State goal line and the linebacker streaked down the left sideline behind a wall of blockers before being pulled down from behind at the Illinois 1-yard line by Osei.
“I was just trying to make sure he didn’t score. I just try to help out my team by trying to hustle down and make sure I didn’t give up on the play,” Osei said.
Osei, Illinois’ third-string quarterback, was in the game on that play as a receiver. He ran from the back of Penn State’s end zone to catch Mauti.
Penn State attempted a field goal on the following play with one second remaining in the half only to have it blocked.
“That was huge, a huge hustle play, you’ve got to give it up,” receiver Ryan Lankford said. “That’s something in the receivers room that we talk about all the time, not giving up on the play. Interceptions, you’ve got to go make the tackle because we’re the fastest guys on the field other than the quarterback and you really don’t want your quarterback making the tackle in that situation.”
Lankford grew up in Florida, but he was a Penn State fan. His dad, Paul, who played for the Miami Dolphins, played for Joe Paterno’s Penn State teams in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
“It’s cool (to play against Penn State),” Lankford said. “In the Big Ten and in college in general it’s cool to play against teams that are on the video games and that’s something you look forward to as a college athlete at any level that you play.”
There’s no doubt who Paul Lankford was rooting for on Saturday.
“He was in orange, or maybe it was blue, depending on what section he was in,” Ryan Lankford said.
In addition to Nixon-Youman leaving, linebacker Jonathan Brown sat most of the second half with an injury, according to Beckman. The junior limped off the field after the game.
“We’ve got to be healthy,” Beckman said. “Jonathan Brown didn’t play much today. We had two true freshmen (Mason Monheim, Mike Svetina) in there at linebacker a lot of the times. We’ve had quite a few guys get dinged up in the football game.”