Freshmen make huge impact in upset over Nittany Lions

 

 

By Jason Grodsky

When Arrelious Benn broke free from four tackles and powered his way into the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown in the second quarter of Illinois 27-20 upset victory over then-No. 21 ranked Penn State, it was exactly what Illinois head coach Ron Zook envisioned when he signed the highly touted receiver last fall.

With his high school coach in the stands Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the freshman wide receiver made a statement to the rest of the Big Ten, catching six passes for 84 yards and a touchdown and also returning a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.

“This is why I graduated early from high school. To come here and show what I can do,” Benn said.

The Washington, D.C. native’s kickoff return in the first quarter was his first career touchdown and brought the crowd to life following Penn State’s opening drive.

It was the first kick return for a touchdown since Pierre Thomas’ 99-yard return against Western Michigan in 2004.

“It was great to see him do what he did today,” Zook said. “I think we all know that he’s going to get better and better.”

While Benn showed his breakaway speed on the kick return, it was his ability to power through tackles that led to his second touchdown of the day and a 21-10 Illini lead in the second quarter.

On the play Benn caught the ball around the 16-yard line of Penn State and looked as if he would be tackled right away, but the 6-foot-2 receiver refused to go down, shrugging off four Nittany Lion players on his way to his first career receiving touchdown.

“When I’m catching the ball, (I’m) saying to myself, ‘I will not be denied,'” Benn said. “I just went up the middle because it was blocked that way and got into the end zone.”

McGee clutch late

With Illini starting quarterback Juice Williams pressing late in the fourth quarter, Zook and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley felt the Illini offensive needed a spark. They found it in redshirt freshman Eddie McGee.

McGee replaced Williams in the fourth quarter and led Illinois on a nine-play, 66-yard drive that ended with senior place-kicker Jason Reda’s second field goal of the game to give Illinois a 27-20 lead.

The big play of the drive came when McGee busted a 53-yard run on an option to move the ball deep into Penn State territory.

Coming into the game, Penn State’s rush defense averaged 54.8 rushing yards allowed a game. McGee tallied close to that on his run.

“Eddie came in and did exactly what we wanted him to do,” Zook said. “I thought in the second half we were backed up on our end of the field for the whole half until he got in.”

While McGee came up clutch for the Illini, Zook and Locksley said that the starter for next week would still be Williams.

Williams was 11-of-19 with 120 passing yards and a touchdown in the first half for the Illini, but was 0-for-5 in the second half, prompting the switch behind center.

“Juice is our starter and is the guy that will line up for us with the first team,” Locksley said. “But if he isn’t performing well, we know that we have a guy in Eddie that is capable of coming in and doing well and letting Juice settle down.”

Illini rush the fans

For the first time since 2002 the Illini played in front of a sellout crowd of 57,078 at Memorial Stadium.

But because of high security on hand at Memorial Stadium, fans were unable to rush onto the field and celebrate the team’s biggest victory of the season with the players. However, that didn’t stop the players from celebrating with its fans.

When the clock ticked down to 0:00, the Illini players rushed into the new north end zone student section to celebrate the victory with their peers.

“We didn’t plan on going into the stands,” senior defensive back Kevin Mitchell said. “We used to just run to the sidelines to where the students were after a win, but now that they are moved we just decided to go up there anyway and celebrate.”

With the entire section in a frenzy, sophomore defensive lineman Will Davis grabbed an instrument from a member of the Marching Illini and attempted to play it while the crowd and team sang the school’s fight song.

“It was a spur of the moment kind of thing,” Davis said. “I was really excited and it was my way of thanking the crowd for coming out. We really feed off their energy all day.”