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Mauti's near-TD return sparks Penn State to Big Ten win over Illinois

| Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, 1:52 p.m.
Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson escapes Illinois defensive back Jack Ramsey during the first half of the game Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, in Champaign, Ill. Seth Perlman | AP Photo
llinois defensive back Jack Ramsey (21) tries to tackle Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson (8) during the first half Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, in Champaign, Ill. AP Photo/Seth Perlman

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It is hard to criticize a player who intercepted two passes and forced a key fumble for coming up short. That didn't stop Michael Mauti from calling himself out in the glow of a resplendent autumn afternoon and coach Bill O'Brien's first Big Ten win.

The senior outside linebacker set a Penn State record by returning an interception 99 yards, but he was taken down a yard short of the end zone.

“That's going to haunt my dreams,” Mauti said after Penn State thumped Illinois, 35-7, at Memorial Stadium, “especially since we didn't get any points out of it.”

Mauti haunted Illinois on Saturday, exacting his brand of revenge for Illini recruitment of Penn State players in the aftermath of NCAA sanctions in July. Mauti seized ownership of O'Brien's inaugural conference game early, drilling punt returner Tommy Davis and causing a fumble that led to an early Penn State touchdown.

His near-perfect James Harrison/Super Bowl XLIII impression at the end of the first second quarter snuffed Illinois' best scoring opportunity in the first half and its best chance to get back into the game.

The Illini briefly threatened in the second half before going down meekly in the unofficial launch of Mauti's All-America campaign.

Penn State (3-2, 1-0) imposed its will on Illinois; its offensive line dominated the more celebrated unit on the other side of the ball. That allowed redshirt sophomore Zach Zwinak to rush for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.

The defense yielded just one score — it came on a trick play — and allowed Illinois (2-3, 0-1) to convert just two of 14 times on third and fourth downs through the first three quarters.

“I don't want to say they quit because that's disrespectful, but I didn't feel the same drive as we did in the first quarter,” outside linebacker Gerald Hodges said. “We just didn't see that drive in the second half.”

The Illini had to be thoroughly demoralized by then, and they were largely to blame for trailing, 21-0, at halftime. They did themselves in with penalties, turnovers and missed opportunities in the first half.

Play that ranged from undisciplined to inept never allowed the announced crowd of 46,734 to provide the Illini with a home-field advantage, and it left first-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman searching for answers.

“I know our football team is hurting and, as we spoke to them in the locker room, it's time to step up and see what we're all about,” Beckman said.

Illinois' day took a wrong turn long before kickoff as a story in the Champaign News-Gazette with the headline, “Who are these guys?” didn't go down nearly as well as the scrambled eggs at Penn State's team breakfast.

“All I had to read was the headline, and I put the paper down,” Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. “I didn't even read the story.”

That is too bad for Illinois since it was an innocuous story about which Penn State players had transferred, which ones stayed and what had changed since the teams' last meeting.

Wherever they derived motivation, the Nittany Lions looked inspired, and they will take a three-game winning streak into next Saturday's game vs. unbeaten Northwestern.

“Offensively again, we left a lot of points off the board,” O'Brien said. “We played physical, but I think we got a lot of improving to do. I really want the kids to understand that.”

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com.

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