All season, the rap on the Penn State offense has been that Kevin Thompson and his receivers can't connect. One play, the pattern is perfect, but the ball is too long. The next, the pass is on the money, but the wideout drops it.
Everything finally clicked Saturday as the 10th-ranked Nittany Lions beat Illinois 27-0.
Thompson completed 19-of-26 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown in his best showing of the year. He hit Chafie Fields on two deep streaks to set up TDs on the Lions' first two drives: one for 47 yards on third-and-17, the other for 53 yards.
And he hooked up with Cordell Mitchell on a 36-yard shovel pass to set up his 10-yard TD pass to Corey Jones as Penn State (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) took a 21-0 lead.
"I did pretty well today," Thompson said. "I was able to find a lot of receivers. We worked really hard the last two weeks on the long ball. We knew all along that Chafie could beat his man."
Fields, who finished with three catches for 115 yards, said he's been itching all year to make a big play.
"I think I ran two streaks all season before this," Fields said. "I've been nipping and picking at coach (Joe) Paterno to throw it up more, and today he did."
Paterno wants his team to throw the long ball more, he insists, but is unsure his offense is as precise as it should be -- not even against a lousy Illini defense.
| Penn State's Eric McCoo, left, is congratulated by Mike Cerimele after scoring a second-quarter touchdown in Saturday's rout of Illinois. (AP) |
"The biggest thing we're not doing is catching the ball consistently," he said. "We drop them in situations that make it difficult to continue throwing the ball."
Illinois coach Ron Turner has more serious offensive problems. He juggled quarterbacks after the Illini (2-7, 1-5) lost three games by a combined 120-12. Kurt Kittner, who managed a single TD pass and threw six interceptions this season, was out. Kirk Johnson, who had four passes picked off in his only other college start, was in.
But it didn't matter to the Lions' defense. Johnson was 13-for-26 for 91 yards with an interception and was sacked four times.
The defense got Penn State its first shutout of the season and its first in a Big Ten game since defeating Iowa 31-0 in 1993. Brandon Short led with eight tackles and Mac Morrison had seven.
Linebacker LaVar Arrington made the defensive play of the day as the Illini went for it on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter. He timed the snap, leaped over the offensive line and landed squarely on fullback Elmer Hickman a moment after he got the handoff.
"That's what I coach. I coach the jump-over-the-center technique," Paterno said sarcastically, then added, "That's pretty good playing."
Said Turner: "I don't know where he came from."
In the first half, penalties hurt Illinois. Rocky Harvey took the opening kickoff 53 yards, but two penalties ended the drive. Illinois' defense forced a punt, but the Illini jumped offside -- twice -- to give Penn State a first down.
"We made too many mistakes," Turner said. "With the penalties early in the game, we really didn't give ourselves a chance to be competitive."
The Lions responded with an 89-yard drive capped by Aaron Harris' TD, his fourth of the year. On the Lions' second drive, a pass interference penalty in the end zone gave them first-and-goal and Eric McCoo ran in from the 2 as Penn State went ahead 14-0.
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