CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP)—It’s been six long years since Illinois had a victory like this to celebrate and so much to be excited about.
Freshman Rejus Benn scored two touchdowns, including a 90-yard kickoff return, and the Illini defense intercepted Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli three times Saturday in a 27-20 victory over No. 21 Penn State.
Illinois hadn’t beaten Penn State or any ranked team since 2001, when the Illini went to the Sugar Bowl. The program has been a wreck since, with five straight losing seasons, but third-year coach Ron Zook appears to have the Illini moving in the right direction.
“Right now, I don’t want to say we’ve turned it around—we haven’t turned it around—but we’ve made some progress,” Zook said.
Illinois (4-1) is 2-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1991.
Benn, the prize catch in Zook’s stellar recruiting class, had six receptions for 84 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown that gave Illinois a 21-10 lead.
Benn caught the short ball over the middle and ran by four would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone.
“I’m catching the ball and saying to myself, ‘I will not be denied’,” Benn said.
Penn State (3-2, 0-2) lost its second straight game and has upcoming games against Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
“I’m not really pleased with anything,” Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. “We just didn’t take advantage of some chances.”
Morelli, who didn’t talk to reporters after the game, completed 21 of 38 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown. He was picked off by linebacker J Leman and defensive backs Vontae Davis and Kevin Mitchell.
The interceptions and a fourth-quarter fumble by the quarterback all came deep in Illini territory, each ending a drive that could’ve tied the game or taken the lead.
“I’m surprised we didn’t pull it out,” Penn State cornerback Justin King said.
He had good reason to believe they might.
The Illini led 21-17 at half on Benn’s two touchdowns and a TD run by Rashard Mendenhall.
From that point Illinois struggled to move the ball, settling for a pair of second-half field goals by Jason Reda.
A combination of Illinois turnovers and special teams mistakes gave Penn State the ball four times in Illini territory in the second half.
Only one of those drives led to points, a 20-yard Kevin Kelly field goal with just over 6 minutes left in the third quarter that made the score 24-20.
The rest ended with turnovers.
Morelli, facing a third-and-20 at his own 48, scrambled to his right and threw deep, but Mitchell intercepted with 27 seconds left to seal the win.
“The ball floated up there a little bit, and I thought I misjudged it,” said Mitchell, a senior. “But I came down with it.”
Derrick Williams had five catches for 79 yards, one of them a 24-yard second-quarter touchdown.
Morelli completed four passes of 24 yards or more, and often had receivers open deep. He underthrew tight end Andrew Quarless, who was open in the end zone, on Leman’s interception.
“We can’t throw interceptions and turn the ball over when we are going in to score,” Paterno said. “It’s something that we are going to have to address.”
Illinois quarterback Juice Williams was sharp for the game’s first 20 minutes, but struggled to find his receivers for most of the second and third quarters. The sophomore completed 11 of 24 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown, but also threw two interceptions before being replaced in the fourth quarter by redshirt freshman Eddie McGee.
“Juice was forcing it,” Zook said.
McGee “came in and did exactly what we wanted him to do,” Zook said. “We were backed up on our end of the field for the whole half until he got in.”
McGee’s 53-yard keeper late in the fourth quarter moved the ball from the Illini 31 to Penn State’s 16, setting up Illinois’ last field goal.
That carry also put Illinois over the 200-yard mark in rushing for the game at 216 on 38 carries. Mendenhall led Illinois with 76 yards on 18 carries, giving him 612 yards and eight TDs this season.