Defense, Redd fuel No. 16 Penn State to 8-1 start
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP)
There's certain symmetry to Penn State's success this season. No exotic passing attack in Happy Valley - just a strong defense, potent running game and a penchant for pulling out wins down the stretch.
How fitting: Joe Paterno's team is going old school.
''We've done some things that have been tough. We're not killing people. We're not running over them or anything like that,'' the 84-year-old Paterno said after Saturday's dramatic 10-7 win over Illinois. ''We've had to struggle.''
Somehow, though, the Nittany Lions (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten) are finding ways to win. They're also the last undefeated team in Big Ten play with a surprising two-game lead in the loss column in the Leaders Division over Ohio State, Purdue and reeling Wisconsin.
Penn State moved up five spots in the AP Top 25 poll released Sunday to No. 16.
What counts for shaking it up this year in Happy Valley? A ''new'' uniform in which the white trim was removed from the jersey to create a solid blue uniform.
The Illini (6-3, 2-3) had peaked at No. 16 before an October swoon. Saturday at snowy Beaver Stadium, coach Ron Zook's team again couldn't muster enough offense to support a defense that held firm until 1:08 left, when Penn State's Silas Redd barreled into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown and a 10-7 lead. With 137 rushing yards, Redd eclipsed 1,000 for the season.
Illinois could have sent the game into overtime if Derek Dimke had hit a straight-on, 42-yard field goal attempt. But the kick bounced off the right upright, and Illinois was left with its third straight loss.
''All of us are hurting. All of us are going to struggle for a few hours,'' Zook said. ''I don't think we walk out of there embarrassed, we just made some mistakes that we can't make.''
Penn State made more. Six fumbles - two of them lost. One interception, and a couple more poor throws that could have been picked off. Several others dropped passes or mishandled punt returns on a slick afternoon.
Yet, as they've done throughout their seven-game winning streak, the Nittany Lions have overcome their mistakes, with a little help from fortunate breaks, too - such as Dimke's errant kick.
''It was exhilarating and scary,'' Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still said. ''You never want a game to go down to the wire like that.''
This year, it's a common occurrence.
Penn State has six wins by 10 points or less, the most for the team since the 1985 squad won seven such tight games. The Nittany Lions have also won three Big Ten games in a season by 10 points or less for the first time.
The 6-foot-5 Still is a big reason why. The senior captain was a regular presence in the offensive backfield with a career-high 10 tackles.
Together, he and fellow tackle Jordan Hill (career-high 10 tackles) helped shut down Illinois in the first half before the Illini's read-option started giving them trouble in the third quarter. Illinois had 286 yards of total offense, but 207 came after the half.
Linebacker Gerald Hodges continued his emergence as a playmaking force, setting a career high for tackles a second straight week. The junior tormented the Illini with 19 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
Of course, stellar linebacker play is Penn State's specialty. NFL players like Jack Ham, Shane Conlan and LaVar Arrington once played for JoePa.
''Before, I was going out and trying to play on instinct,'' said Hodges, a converted safety. ''Once you get the defense down and study the offense it makes it way easier and way slower. You know what is coming.''
Now, Linebacker U. gets a week off before a season-defining stretch to end the regular season. Nebraska visits Beaver Stadium on Nov. 12 before the Nittany Lions finish off with trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin. Win two of the next three and Penn State will clinch a trip to the inaugural Big Ten title game.
Paterno won his 409th career game Saturday to break a tie with Grambling State's Eddie Robinson for the most among Division I coaches. He was more concerned afterward, though, about what lay ahead.
''I think we've proven to ourselves, which is the important part - not proving to you guys - that we'll stick together and make some things happen,'' Paterno told reporters. ''Whether that's going to be good enough with other teams, we'll see.''
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