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Lion Tales: Illinois

Penn State lost a player from its roster to Tim Beckman, but it didn’t lose the game

NCAA Football: Penn State at Illinois Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, Penn State opened its conference slate at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, delivering a 35-7 throttling of Illinois.

Zach Zwinak ran for 100 yards and two scores, while the Nittany Lions forced three turnovers and cruised to a 21-0 halftime lead.

You can roll right into the highlights just below, but you know that’s only part of the story surrounding that tense battle more than a decade ago.

For most here, the 2012 offseason doesn’t need to be rehashed all that much. But, if you’re very new to Penn State fandom, here you go with the part that matters to this post.

The Jerry Sandusky scandal led to the firing of Joe Paterno, the NCAA levying major penalties on Penn State, and left most assuming that Nittany Lions football would never be the same.

One night before the NCAA’s release of its sanctions, I received a phone call from a close friend with connections outlining all of the penalties that would be coming Penn State’s way. I scoffed and refused to believe any of it was true.

We know it wound up being true and one of the most difficult sanctions to deal with was the fact that the NCAA was going to allow all Penn State players a free transfer with immediate eligibility. This led to notable departures like Silas Redd (USC), Justin Brown (Oklahoma), Khairi Fortt (Cal), and Anthony Fera (Texas).

It only led to one departure to Illinois, but that was not by lack of effort from then-Illini coach Tim Beckman. Having just been hired as the Illinois coach the previous December, Beckman - along with members of his staff - descended upon Happy Valley to attempt to poach Penn State players who had just recently learned of their fate.

He netted one, reserve offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki, but also became a major enemy to Penn State leaders, such as all-around Nittany Lion superhero Michael Mauti.

While Nowicki watched from the sidelines, a place he would never leave in his one year spent at Illinois, Penn State came to Champaign having shaken off a tumultuous start and with an even 2-2 record.

Most won’t remember, but the Illini were favored to win this game. But, it was never close.

Penn State’s offense was more opportunistic than dominant, taking advantage of a few Illini turnovers. Zwinak and Matt McGloin combined for four short-yardage touchdowns. Meanwhile, McGloin would show the command of the NASCAR offense that would help push Penn State to a 6-2 mark in Big Ten play during a season many thought they’d go 0-for-conference play.

However, the story that day - as it was much of the 2012 season - was Mauti. The senior linebacker was dynamic with six tackles, one half sack, and two interceptions. One of those interceptions was a critical play as it came just before the half on a fourth-and-goal. Mauti stepped in front and raced nearly 100 yards the other way, coming up just short of a touchdown.

Meanwhile, Illinois scored its lone touchdown on a trick play in the third quarter when they were down 21-0.

After the game, Mauti didn’t hide his motivation.

“Obviously having to play against these guys, it was sweet,” Mauti said. “We haven’t forgotten about what happened this summer. Yeah, to be honest with you, we had that in the back of our minds, and that kept us going.”

As for the Illini, they finished Beckman’s first year at 2-10 and winless in the conference. Beckman lasted three years in Champaign, never finishing with a winning record and claiming just four Big Ten victories in his career.