By GENARO C. ARMAS, AP Sports Writer
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) – The only players celebrating after Penn State’s homecoming game were wearing bright orange and blue.
Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase danced and sidestepped around Nittany Lions defenders, while the defense frolicked all over the Beaver Stadium field after the Illini won their first game in seven tries in Happy Valley.
Leshoure had 119 yards, Scheelhaase was 15 of 19 passing for 151 yards and a touchdown and Nate Bussey returned an interception 16 yards for a score as Illinois pulled away in the second half for a 33-13 victory Saturday over injury-depleted Penn State.
“Obviously it was a big win for us. We’ve talked all week about how Illinois has never won here and we had a chance to … do something that’s never been done at the University of Illinois,” coach Ron Zook said. “I’m proud of them.”
Derek Dimke added four field goals and the Illini (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) overcame three fumbles on special teams by return man Jack Ramsey by brushing aside a short-handed defense. The bruising 6-foot Leshoure and Scheelhaase softened the Nittany Lions on the run, and Scheelhaase took advantage of soft coverage over the middle with an 18-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to A.J. Jenkins.
By the time halfback Jason Ford hit Evan Wilson with a 4-yard TD pass on a trick play for a 14-point lead with 8:30 in the third quarter, the Illini were well on their way to a comfortable victory.
“They kicked our ears in. They linebackers, I thought they never saw a pass before. Who do you blame? You’ve got to blame us,” dejected Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. “In the first half, they could have completed every down.”
It was another confidence-building performance for Illinois after a closer-than-expected 24-13 loss last week to Ohio State. They face another tough road trip next week at No. 17 Michigan State.
Penn State’s season-long troubles in the red zone continued after settling for field goals off two Ramsey punt-return fumbles inside the 30 in the first half. Illinois’ rejuvenated defense held the Nittany Lions (3-3, 0-2) to season-lows of 235 yards and seven first downs in freshman quarterback Rob Bolden’s choppiest game of his young career.
Bolden finished 8 of 21 for 142 yards and a TD, while tailback Evan Royster had another subpar outing with 35 yards on 11 carries.
“When bad things happen it’s important you just keep playing,” Zook said about the stands following the turnovers. “I thought the way the defense was able to hold them to field goals and manage critical situations, I just think it’s a sign of guys going about their business and not worrying about the end result.”
Penn State was lucky to be trailing just 20-13 at halftime following a first half in which they managed just three first downs.
The second half wasn’t much better.
After a Penn State three-and-out, Illinois — the conference’s best team in the red zone — gave its opponent an offensive lesson with a nine-play, 68-yard drive that sapped the enthusiasm out of Beaver Stadium.
Troy Pollard had a 20-yard run up the middle. Scheelhaase scrambled for 16 yards, then hit Jenkins for a 14-yard gain to the 9.
Against a defense littered with inexperienced backups, Illinois coach Ron Zook went to a trick play when Scheelhaase pitched back to Ford, who found Wilson in the end zone from four yards out for a 27-13 lead.
Scheelhaase also ran for 61 yards on eight carries.
“We knew up front that we could try to wear them down as the game went on. Our offensive line did a good job of just coming off the ball and repeating it down the field,” said the redshirt freshman quarterback.
The Illini defense frustrated Bolden and his struggling offense — with the Nittany Lions’ only bright spots coming on Bolden’s 80-yard touchdown pass to Derek Moye.
It followed one of Bolden’s biggest mistakes — a telegraphed attempted swing pass to Devon Smith that was tipped in the air by Bussey, who snatched the ball and ran untouched into the end zone for a 14-3 lead at 9:39 of the second quarter.
“I did a lousy job. I thought we were ready but we just didn’t play very well,” Paterno said. “I could make a million excuses.”
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