The basketball news was the highlight of Paul Klee's day at Memorial Stadium. Here's his take of the 35-7 loss to Penn State:
— The first impression from Penn State’s rout of Illinois on Saturday: Don’t push Michael Mauti’s buttons. How fired up was Mauti to exact his version of revenge on the Illini? One of his teammates said the shaggy-haired linebacker was “banging his head” against a locker before kickoff. Mauti denied the claim. “I bang my head against other people enough on the field,” he said. Head-banging or not, Mauti admitted he had extra motivation entering the game. When Tim Beckman sent coaches to State College to gauge the interest of some of Mauti’s teammates, the linebacker was the most outspoken of the Nittany Lions. At first, Mauti tried to deny Beckman’s actions fueled his MVP performance in their first-and-only matchup. Then he came clean. “Obviously to play against these guys, it was sweet. That’s really what it was,” Mauti said. “We haven’t forgotten about what happened over the summer. Yeah, to be honest with you, we had that in the back of our minds.” This was a linebacker wearing the pride of a shaken program on his No. 42 jersey. He wrecked the Illini with two interceptions, six tackles and, afterward, he had the look of a man that was ready to play another two quarters — or bash another locker. “He’s constantly trying to make a statement,” quarterback Matt McGloin said.
— Nathan Scheelhaase is one of the finest leaders to roll through the Illinois campus in recent years. He’s the kind of selfless personality you build a team around and shares a gift for lifting up his teammates. That’s why one incident Saturday was so telling. When wide receiver Kenny Knight stopped short on a route that led to an interception, Scheelhaase had words with Knight at midfield. The outburst was as un-Nathan-like as a curse word. But this isn’t about a single interception that came when the outcome was already decided, or to put either player on the spot for an excusable mistake. It was visual evidence these Illini are a broken team. There was more arguing on the field than confidence in the huddle. As if he could sense their splintered psyche, Beckman spent the final three minutes of regulation applauding players as they approached the sideline. It was the only applause he heard Saturday. Beckman’s coached five games. Illinois has lost three by at least four touchdowns. If fans weren’t concerned before, they should be now.
— After landing on the wrong end of a helmet-to-helmet hit from Earnest Thomas, Penn State tight end Matt Lehman was given a test at halftime. The medical staff wanted to see if Lehman’s senses were in check. “They just asked me a couple questions,” Lehman said. “ ’What’s the score? What play did we just run?’ ” Apparently, he had the correct answers, because he played in the second half. Asked if he suffered a concussion, Lehman said, “I may have. I don’t know. I got hit pretty good.”
— Earnest Thomas, a safety, was ejected for the hit on Lehman and it would be hard to argue the penalty was undeserved. Still, another helmet-to-helmet tackle appeared to be deserving of a flag, at least. Near the Illinois sideline, Penn State safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong laid a lick on Donovonn Young. The tackle was high enough that Beckman did his best Jim Harbaugh and verbally unloaded on the official. The timing didn’t help the ref’s cause, either. Just minutes before, Illinois safety Terry Hawthorne had earned an unsportsmanlike penalty for “targeting the head area,” as the official described, on a tackle near the Penn State sideline.
— Considering Penn State’s motivation entering Memorial Stadium, the Illini couldn’t afford to give away free yards. But their eight penalties for 69 yards — both season highs — showed an undisciplined side that really hadn’t surfaced until Saturday. A particularly frustrating penalty was a false start that occurred before the second quarter had started, with 15:00 still on the clock. Despite dominating the 60 minutes, the Nittany Lions believed the final score should have been more severe. “We didn’t play as well as we could’ve played,” said McGloin, their quarterback. “We left a lot of points on the field.”
— Where’s Indiana when you need it? The Big Ten’s trustworthy cure for a football funk doesn’t arrive at Memorial Stadium until Oct. 27. Between now and then, Illinois travels to Wisconsin (on Saturday) and Michigan (the following Saturday). The Illini are 1-5-1 at Camp Randall since 1994 and 3-4-1 at the Big House since 1992.
— The homecoming affair against Indiana won’t be the gimme some observers expect. The Hoosiers (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) played with undefeated Northwestern on Saturday and trailed by only a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
— The calendar agrees with your eyes — the Illini are in trouble. Since 2000, Illinois (2-3) has closed the month of September with a sub-.500 record in four seasons. Illinois finished 5-7 (in 2002), 1-11 (2003), 2-10 (2006) and 3-9 (2009). Perhaps it’s time to break a streak. Those four teams went 0-4 in their first games in October.
In the Stadium
— Former Illini Moe Gardner led the crowd to “Hail to the Orange” at halftime. His 57 tackles for loss rank second on the all-time list (Simeon Rice, 69). Gardner was introduced as “the greatest defensive lineman in Illinois history.”
— Illini basketball great Mannie Jackson sat with John Groce and his coaching staff in the East stands. Jackson recently authored the memoir, “Boxcar to Board Rooms.”
— Former Purdue basketball star Robbie Hummel, who has family in the area, was in attendance at Memorial Stadium. Penn State kicker Sam Ficken is Hummel’s cousin.
— Former Illini basketball coach Bruce Weber is in Champaign-Urbana this weekend on a recruiting swing to observe Centennial junior Michael Finke in an open gym.
— Penn State basketball coach Patrick Chambers, who is no longer the youngest coach in the Big Ten after Groce was hired at Illinois, wasn’t in attendance but is recovering from offseason knee surgery. His spirits would be lifted if Josh Hart, a four-star guard out of the Washington, D.C., area, chooses Penn State over Villanova this week.
— Former Illini Kyle Hudson, Rashard Mendenhall and Vontae Davis received an ovation during the first half. Hudson is a member of the Phillies farm system. Davis is on a bye week with the Colts. Mendenhall is on a bye week with the Steelers.