Illini fail in Nittany nightmare

Kicker Jason Reda kicks a field goal in the first quarter of Saturday´s game against Penn State. Illinois lost 63-10. Jamey Fenske

By Derek Barichello

It was a Homecoming to forget.

After the Illini scored a field goal on their first drive to take an early 3-0 lead, No. 12 Penn State scored 63 unanswered points, with 56 coming in the first half, en route to a 63-10 blistering.

The 63 points allowed by the Illini defense marked a Memorial Stadium record, breaking the previous record of 61 points held by this year’s team against Michigan State on Sept. 24.

The Nittany Lions were led by quarterback Michael Robinson, who had a “ghostly” performance. Robinson threw for four touchdowns and rushed for two, without playing a single down in the second half.

Illinois’ Homecoming has been a spotlight for stars to shine in the past. It was Oct. 18, 1924, when Illinois’ “Galloping Ghost,” Red Grange, scored five touchdowns as the Illini rolled to a 39-14 homecoming victory.

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Unfortunately for the Illini, the star came from the other sideline Saturday.

Robinson said it was the best performance of his college career.

“If you look at the final numbers, you’ll see,” Robinson said. “I got into a rhythm.”

Early on, the night appeared to be going the Illini’s way. After winning the coin toss, they elected to receive and drove the ball down the field for 57 yards before a holding call halted the drive, which ended with a 41-yard Jason Reda field goal.

After the game, head coach Ron Zook said the holding call upset him the most.

“Our first series was good,” Zook said. “We had a holding call against someone who should know better.”

The Nittany Lions did not waste time answering back, taking only three plays and 1:16 for Robinson to find Ethan Kilmer in the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown pass.

Then after a three-and-out by the Illini, Robinson led his team down the field again for a score. This time, Robinson hooked up from 31 yards out with Deon Butler for the touchdown, making it 14-3. On the play, the Illini defense blitzed a corner back, but had a breakdown in its coverage, causing Butler to be wide open in the endzone.

Robinson said he owed his success to his coaching staff for preparing him for Illinois’ defensive scheme.

“They do a lot of zone blitzes,” Robinson said. “They sit in that cover two and make it impossible for us to have a hot wide receiver to go to, which throws you a loop. What we were able to do all night is see the blitz and call protection to pick it up, giving us enough time to complete it to an open man.”

After two Illinois three-and-outs, Robinson took advantage of the scouting report twice more in the first quarter with touchdown passes.

The offense was possibly the worst defense for the Illini. The offense managed only one first down since its first drive, coughing the ball up once for a Penn State touchdown.

When it was all said and done, after two Robinson touchdowns on the ground, the Illini went into the locker room behind 56-3.

Penn State’s Joe Paterno called off the dogs in the second half, calling nothing but running plays, and emptying his bench on the field.

Trying to shake things up, Zook removed quarterback Tim Brasic, who had the worst performance of his six-game college career, finishing 8-16 passing for 49 yards.

“Timmy was struggling, he wasn’t seeing things,” Zook said. “We decided we would give him a chance to settle down in the second half, and he didn’t.”

His replacement, Chris Pazan, did not fair much better, tossing an interception that Penn State defender Nolan McCready ran back 76 yards for a touchdown.

The one positive for the Illini on the night was freshman running back Rashard Mendenhall. He scored his first touchdown on a two-yard pass from Pazan with 4:20 left in the game.

Overall, Zook was disappointed with his team, but said it was all part of the rebuilding process.

“As bad as this sounds, we’re going to get this going,” Zook said. “The worst thing to do would be to change. I know what we are doing is right, we need to just keep on keeping on.”