Bill Belton was back, but Zach Zwinak was the featured back Saturday. The redshirt sophomore led Penn State in rushing for the second straight week, notching a career-high with 100 yards on 19 carries, and added the first two rushing touchdowns of his career, a 1-yarder in the first quarter and another 1-yarder in the fourth.
Photo courtesy of Penn State athletics.
"In this game, I felt like he was the guy who was getting the ball downhill," head coach Bill O'Brien said.
Belton, who played for the first time since spraining his right ankle in the second half of the Ohio game, finished with 65 yards on 16 carries, including a 19-yard run in the second quarter. He said after the game he didn't have any "problems lingering" with the injury.
"At the end of the day we're just playing football," Belton said. "You don't forget how to play football. It's like riding a bike."
Penn State also got left tackle Donovan Smith back from a foot injury. The big redshirt freshman, who played for the first time since the Virginia game, helped the offense pick up 113 of its 173 rushing yards in the second half.
"I know the line, as (the defensive players) get tired, the coaches realize it and they call the plays to take advantage of it," Zwinak said. "We were all having a blast. They kept grinding it out, and we kept getting yards."
Penn State continued to mix and match lineman combinations Saturday. Nine different linemen saw first-team reps.
"The offensive line is getting better every week," O'Brien said. "There's great chemistry with those guys."
O'Brien thought his big tight end got the wind knocked out of him on his second-quarter touchdown catch.
Matt Lehman had a different version of the story.
"I started to black out a little bit," Lehman said. "It wasn't the wind. It was just my head."
A scary moment for the Nittany Lions resulted in their third touchdown of their 35-7 victory over Illinois, the ejection from the game of Illinois safety Earnest Thomas, who was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit of Lehman on the play, and a shaky-legged trip to the sideline for Lehman, who was checked out by doctors but found to be OK.
"They just asked me a couple questions and I got them right," Lehman said. "'What's the score, what play did you just run?'"
Lehman returned to the game and added four more catches in the second half, finishing with a team-best five receptions for 70 yards, both career highs. He surpassed his season totals in both categories.
The 6-foot-6, 258-pound redshirt junior, who transferred from Shippensburg in 2010 and joined the team the following spring, has been one of several tight ends to make a big impact for Penn State this season.
"Coming from pretty much nowhere, walking on the team and being able to contribute is pretty cool," Lehman said. "It's a credit to Coach O'Brien and the way he uses tight ends."
Michael Mauti's 99-yard interception return in the final minute of the second quarter gave Penn State the football at the Illinois 1-yard line with one second remaining. O'Brien opted to send Sam Ficken onto the field to try an 18-yard field goal, which was blocked.
Asked about the decision after the game, O'Brien said he initially thought officials had spotted the ball at the 2-yard line. He said if he had known it was at the 1, he might have given more thought to going for it.
"Hindsight being 20-20, I should have gone for the touchdown," he said.
A reporter suggested O'Brien should have handed the ball off to Mauti to let him get the score after all. Later, Mauti was asked if he would have wanted a shot at scoring.
"If there was more time, I would have petitioned for it," Mauti said, smiling.
Miscellaneous: Announced attendance for the game was 46,734. … Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong had to leave the game after the opening kickoff of the second half with cramps and after the game had a wrap around his right arm. … Defensive end Sean Stanley, who missed the previous week's game with a back injury, had three tackles and half of a sack in his return to the starting lineup. … Penn State was whistled for only two penalties for 17 yards Saturday, a week after being flagged nine times for 100 yards in a win over Temple. … Punter Alex Butterworth averaged a season-best 43.3 yards on three punts. … Ten true freshmen -- DaQuan Davis, Eugene Lewis, Steven Bench, Jordan Lucas, Jesse James, Trevor Williams, Akeel Lynch, Charles Idemudia, Brent Wilkerson and Austin Johnson[/b] -- made the travel roster. Davis, Lucas, James and Williams saw action.