CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The 34,000-plus folks who were scattered around Memorial Stadium were making the noise of twice that many people. Illinois had taken a 24-21 lead on 10th-ranked Penn State and the folks were sniffing an upset of mammoth proportions.
But Miles Sanders and Trace McSorley had other ideas Friday night.
The Nittany Lions, who fell behind on the Fighting Illini's initial possession of the third quarter, responded with six consecutive touchdowns in the second half while shutting out their opponent, and rolled to a 63-24 victory in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
Miles Sanders rushed for a career-high 200 yards and three touchdowns and Trace McSorley threw three TD passes for the Lions (4-0, 1-0), who accumulated 63 points for the second straight week and now can get ready for next Saturday's showdown against No. 4 Ohio State in a Whiteout at Beaver Stadium.
In all, Penn State gained 591 yards of total offense and kept Illinois (2-2, 0-1) off the scoreboard after Trenard Davis' 17-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Smalling had given the Fighting Illini their only lead of the night less than 4 ½ minutes into the third quarter.
"We're been in these situations before," Lions head coach James Franklin said. "Whenever we get in those situations, we don't panic. We make the adjustments. We believe in each other. We just were a little more consistent.
"Once we were able to get them settled down and play some more base defense, I think we were fine from that point on. Early on, turnovers hurt. I talked all week long how with this (Illinois) team, the turnover ratio was going to be critical, and in the first half we didn't do a good job of protecting the football and it came back to hurt us."
Sanders, who carried the ball 22 times in establishing a career best, high school or college, started the second-half scoring onslaught with a 48-yard run. The Lions scored two touchdowns in a 44-second span to start the fourth quarter on McSorley scoring passes of 16 yards to Juwan Johnson and 21 yards to K.J. Hamler, with the latter TD set up on linebacker Jan Johnson's interception.
Backup running backs accounted for the final three scores – Ricky Slade on runs of 61 yards and 1 yard, and Journey Brown on a 6-yard run. The Lions rushed for 387 yards.
"It feels good when you can put up points like that," McSorley said. "You're in a good zone. A credit to our offensive line, they really came in and took over this game and allowed us to do it on the ground. And we were able to put some points up in the air and that was good, too."
McSorley rushed for a career-high 92 yards in 15 carries and completed 12 of 19 passes for 160 yards.
Penn State had 324 yards of offense in the first half, with Sanders rushing 14 times for 113 yards and McSorley accounting for 201 yards of offense, but led by only 21-17, hurt by two turnovers and a missed field goal. Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini gashed the visitors for 174 rush yards in the opening half and stayed turnover-free.
Illinois, which ended the first half on a 42-yard field goal by Chase McLaughlin, received the second-half kickoff and marched 75 yards with the help of two penalties against Penn State. The more significant foul was a roughing-the-passer call against linebacker Cam Brown on a third-down incompletion.
A pass interference penalty later brought the ball to the 17, from where Davis took a handoff on a reverse before raising up and throwing the TD pass to Smalling.
After that, however, it was all Penn State.
Penn State scored the first touchdown of the game on a 14-yard run by Sanders, but failed to capitalize on a pair of scoring opportunities in the opening quarter. A fumble by tight end Jonathan Holland at the Illinois 20 after the reception of a pass from McSorley was recovered by safety Michael Marchese.
Later in the period, the Lions moved into field goal range with the help of a 20-yard completion from McSorley to K.J. Hamler, but freshman Jake Pinegar booted a 44-yard field goal attempt into the wind low and left of the uprights. The Fighting Illini used the miss as a springboard to a six-play, 74-yard drive that ended with Mike Epstein's 2-yard run.
The Nittany Lions got their offense in gear after Illinois tied the game, going 75 and 66 yards on their next two drives for touchdowns – a 2-yard run by Sanders and McSorley's 5-yard pass to freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth – for a 21-7 lead.
After the TD pass, the Fighting Illini closed the half with 10 unanswered points. A 51-yard run by Reggie Corbin highlighted a drive that resulted in Rivers' 6-yard scoring strike to Smalling.