STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Mikel Leshoure ran for 119 yards, Nate Bussey had a 16-yard interception return for a score and Illinois pounded injury-depleted Penn State in a 33-13 win on Saturday to spoil the Nittany Lions' homecoming in Happy Valley.
Derek Dimke added four field goals and the Illini overcame three fumbles on special teams by return man Jack Ramsey by pounding away at a short-handed defense. The bruising 6-foot Leshoure and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase softened the Nittany Lions on the run, and Scheelhaase took advantage of soft coverage over the middle with an 18-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to A.J. Jenkins.
By the time halfback Jason Ford hit Evan Wilson with a 4-yard TD pass on a trick play for a 14-point lead with 8:30 in the third quarter, the Illini (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) were well on their way to their first victory in seven tries in Happy Valley.
It was another confidence-building performance for Illinois after a closer-than-expected 24-13 loss last week to Ohio State. They face another tough road trip next week at No. 17 Michigan State.
On offense, Penn State's season-long troubles in the red zone continued after settling for field goals off two Ramsey punt-return fumbles inside the 30 in the first half. Illinois' rejuvenated defense held the Nittany Lions (3-3, 0-2) to season-lows of 235 yards and seven first downs in freshman quarterback Rob Bolden's choppiest game of his young career.
They were lucky to be trailing just 20-13 at halftime following a first half in which they managed just three first downs.
The second half wasn't much better.
Coach Joe Paterno's crew opened with a three-and-out drive. Illinois, the Big Ten's best team in the red zone, then gave its opponents an offensive lesson with a nine-play, 68-yard drive that sapped the enthusiasm out of Beaver Stadium.
Troy Pollard had a 20-yard run up the middle. Scheelhaase scrambled for 16 yards, then hit Jenkins for a 14-yard gain to the 9.
Against a defense littered with inexperienced backups, Illinois coach Ron Zook went to a trick play when Scheelhaase pitched back to Ford, who found Wilson in the end zone from four yards out for a 27-13 lead.
Scheelhaase finished 15 of 19 passing for 151 yards, and ran for 61 yards on eight carries.
The Illini defense frustrated Bolden and the struggling Penn State offense -- with the Nittany Lions' only bright spots coming on the young quarterback's 80-yard touchdown pass to Derek Moye.
It followed one of Bolden's biggest mistakes -- a telegraphed attempted swing pass to Devon Smith that was tipped in the air and recovered by Bussey, who ran untouched into the end zone for a 14-3 lead at 9:39 of the second quarter.
Bolden finished 8 of 21 for 142 yards, while tailback Evan Royster had another subpar outing with 35 yards on 11 carries.
Illinois held the ball for 38 minutes, and limited Penn State to just 2 of 14 on third-down conversions.