Rashard Casey zigged and zagged his way up the field, bobbing and weaving through the defense and even throwing in two 360-degree turns for good measure.
"He just makes big plays," Penn State fullback Mike Cerimele said. "He made two of them today and turned the momentum."
Did he ever.
It was the 11th straight victory for Penn State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten), the second-longest winning streak in the country.
"If the team's flat, I'm going to try to spark them somehow," said Casey, who finished 3-of-6 for 49 yards and rushed for 75 yards.
Though Penn State extended its winning streak over Illinois (4-4, 1-4) to six games, the victory was much tougher, and much sloppier, than a No. 2 team can afford at this time of the year. Despite repeatedly getting good field position from kick returner Bruce Branch, the Nittany Lions' offense was pitiful through the first 2@1/2 quarters.
Kevin Thompson threw three interceptions. Casey was ineffective in his first series, getting sacked for a 7-yard loss. Penn State got to the Illinois 36 four times without scoring.
They also settled for Travis Forney's 44-yard field goal after Thompson threw two incompletions, giving Penn State a 10-7 lead with 12:15 left in the third quarter.
"I don't know what it is, but we can't get things rolling right away," tight end Tony Stewart said. "We're doing all right offensively, but we made some mistakes."
The only thing that saved Penn State was, as usual, its vaunted defense. Illinois, which stunned then-No. 9 Michigan last weekend at Ann Arbor, couldn't move the ball after the first quarter. They gained just five yards in the second quarter.
he Nittany Lions abused Illini quarterback Kurt Kittner all day, sacking him five times. Defensive end Courtney Brown tied a Penn State record with four sacks, and his 32 career sacks broke Larry Kubin's school record of 30.
"Courtney sets the whole tone," said linebacker LaVar Arrington, who had six tackles, including three for a loss of 15 yards, and two sacks. "When Courtney's on, our pass rush is on. When he's not, we struggle."
But the defense needed some help, Casey finally provided it. Put in with less than four minutes left in the third quarter, he got Illinois linebacker Danny Clark on a pump fake and then lobbed an easy, 16-yard pass to Stewart.
Stewart caught the ball just before the goal line, turned and stepped into the end zone, giving Penn State a 17-7 lead with 2:22 left in the third quarter.
After the Illini went three-and-out on their next possession thanks, in part, to Brown's 9-yard sack Steve Fitts botched the punt and Penn State took over on the Illinois 34.
On the first play, Casey looked around briefly before he took off running.
"I try to stay in the pocket and wait for something to come clean," he said. "All of the sudden, I saw an open field and I tucked it in and ran."
He eluded at least five Illinois players as he dashed upfield, and even pushed a few of his own teammates out of the way. He darted around and spun around twice before finally sprinting into the end zone for the 24-7 lead with 1:13 left in the third.
"I don't know how I did it," said Casey, who was hit so hard last week he was coughing up blood. "I've got to wait and see the film myself to see what happened."
The Illini didn't look like a team at the bottom of the Big Ten when the game started, going right after Penn State. Muhammad Abdullah picked off Thompson's pass in the first series, and the defense swarmed over anything in a white jersey.
Rocky Harvey, who scored the final two touchdowns against Michigan last week, broke free for a 34-yard scoring run with 7:01 left in the first quarter, giving Illinois a 7-0 lead. Anthony King got a hand on Harvey's jersey as he crossed the goal line, but it was too little, too late.
It was only the second touchdown Penn State has given up in the first quarter this season.
By the end of the first quarter, Harvey had rushed for 75 yards
10 more than Penn State had allowed in each of its last three games. But the Nittany Lions responded quickly, holding the Illini to 135 yards of total offense the rest of the game.
"They got yardage on us, but we made adjustments," linebacker Brandon Short said. "The W is all that matters. I don't care if we win by 51 or 1. A win is a good game."
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