- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Derrick Williams arrived at Penn State three years ago as the most coveted recruit in the nation. Four games into his senior season, he had showed only a glimpse of why.
The 6-foot, 194-pound wide receiver began this season with 12 career touchdowns and 2,744 total yards. Not bad, not bad at all. He had broken his left arm his freshman year during a game against Michigan, the Nittany Lions' only loss that season, and missed the last six games.
This season, Williams returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown in the opener against Coastal Carolina. But until Saturday's 38-24 win, he had not scored again. He had touched the ball only 30 times in four games. As part of an offense with many talented receivers, Williams understood the reason.
But on Tuesday, Jordan Norwood, the Nittany Lions' leading receiver, injured a hamstring. With the Big Ten opener against No. 22 Illinois only four days away, No. 12 Penn State needed Williams.
Coach Joe Paterno said to him, "It's about time you break out and have a real big one."
For Nittany Lions historians out there, the exact moment Williams broke out came on the first play of the fourth quarter as Illinois (2-2) hung on to Penn State (5-0) like a bad date.
Williams had caught a 21-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and followed it with a 5-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Yet Illinois did not cower the way Penn State's first four opponents did. When the Illini recovered a fumble by Stephfon Green and turned it into a 43-yard field goal by Matt Eller, they closed within 24-17.
There's nothing like converting a turnover into points to change the momentum of a game. Except maybe a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Williams took in the ball at the Penn State 6. When he searched for a lane, he discovered his 10 teammates had built him an entire interstate.
"Did you guys see how easy it was?" Williams asked after the game. "It was the guys up in front of me that did the job. All I had to do was run. I saw, like, a highway with a big truck that could go through it."
Williams sped 94 yards up the right side of the field past the Nittany Lions' bench. When he reached the end zone, he had the first three-touchdown game of his college career, and Penn State had control of the game again.
Williams not only fulfilled the promise he showed long ago, he also performed a single-game feat no other Nittany Lion has performed in Paterno's 43 seasons as head coach: score a touchdown rushing, receiving and on a kick return. Behind Williams and the continued savvy play of quarterback Daryll Clark, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third, Penn State beat the Illini in a whiteout game before 109,626 fans at Beaver Stadium.
Williams finished with 241 all-purpose yards, a career high. He caught six passes for 75 yards and rushed six times for 33 more. You get the feeling that the better Williams played, the better Norwood started feeling. Paterno said Norwood should be back for Penn State's game at Purdue on Saturday.
"This is the first time he's really had a chance to break out," Paterno said after the game. " We went into the game, we thought Derrick was going to have to do a little more. Not that the other guys couldn't, but Derrick has been in tough games and he's made big plays. He had a big day. He's a heck of an athlete. He's a heck of a competitor."
Paterno didn't exactly call his shot when he said that to Williams.
"Every game he comes to me and says, 'It's going to be your week,'" Williams said. " Today, it wasn't about me at all. It was about the guys that were in front of me, the guys in the offensive line. Daryll did a great job. The other receivers came up. On special teams, all the guys did their assignments, and that's what opened it up."
So Williams is humble, too. Paterno said he likes the makeup of this team. It's easy to see why. Penn State, like Williams, is performing in a way that is attracting national attention. During a weekend when six ranked teams lost, the Nittany Lions overcame two early Illinois leads and won their league opener. That might not sound like much, but Penn State had lost eight of its previous nine Big Ten openers.
Penn State looks real. Williams looks like a star, four years after he arrived as a blue chip. If I'm Jordan Norwood, I'm ready to play Sunday.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.
Penn State was waiting for Derrick Williams to have a breakout game. He played like a real star against Illinois. And the Nittany Lions look to be a real good team.