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Nittany Lions win behind record performance by Larry Johnson

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Larry Johnson has the two best rushing performances in Penn State history. He’s still not satisfied.
Johnson ran for 279 yards to break his own school record and scored on an 84-yard run as No. 20 Penn State beat Illinois 18-7 Saturday, making the Nittany Lions bowl eligible for the first time in three years.
Johnson had a second 84-yard touchdown run called back because of a holding penalty early in the fourth quarter. With a 10-yard run in the third quarter, he broke the school record of 257 yards he set two weeks ago against Northwestern. But Johnson fumbled the ball to Illinois’ Derrick Strong on the play.
“When they talk about when I broke my record, they’re not going to talk about the long run that was called back or the runs before that,” Johnson said. “They’re going to talk about the fumble that I had to break the record, and that sticks in my mind more than anything else.”
The Nittany Lions (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) were coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time in coach Joe Paterno’s career.
But Paterno, whose 333 career wins are the most in Division I-A history — four ahead of Florida State’s Bobby Bowden — played down the bowl issue, saying he was more concerned with next week’s game against Virginia.
“I’m sure when they start talking about things they’ll be anxious to go somewhere — and I’ll be anxious to go with them,” Paterno said. “But really I haven’t thought about it. We’ve got three games coming up.”
The Fighting Illini (3-6, 2-3) struggled on offense, despite entering the game leading the conference in average yards at 463.9 per game.
Johnson’s scoring run came late in the first quarter, when he waited for a hole, then shrugged off three leg tackles before sprinting down the left sideline to the end zone.
“Larry is a very good back,” Illinois tackle Brett Kautter said. “You’re not going to arm tackle him. You really have to hit him, and we didn’t do that.”
It was the longest run of Johnson’s career and put him over the 1,000 mark for the season, making him just the ninth Penn State player to reach the mark, and the first since Curtis Enis ran for 1,363 yards in 1997.
“We knew coming in that would be one of the keys to the game, to slow down their running game, and obviously we couldn’t do that,” Illinois coach Ron Turner said. “You can’t give a guy 300 rushing yards and win the football game.”
Jon Beutjer replaced Dustin Ward at quarterback late in the third quarter and led the Fighting Illini back into the game in the fourth quarter. Kenny Boyle caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Beutjer to make it 18-7 with 5:22 left, then the Illinois defense stopped Sean McHugh on third-and-1, forcing Penn State to punt.
But Beutjer’s pass to Aaron Moorehead was tipped by Jimmy Kennedy and intercepted in the end zone by Anwar Phillips, allowing Penn State to run out the clock.
Before Boyle’s touchdown, Penn State’s defense went 11 quarters without allowing a touchdown, with the last coming in overtime at Michigan on Oct. 12.
Zack Mills threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Mike Lukac to give Penn State an 18-0 halftime lead.
Wide receiver Gerald Smith ran 12 yards on a reverse, and fullback Paul Jefferson went 10 yards on a shovel pass to set up Robbie Gould’s 34-yard field goal, giving Penn State a 3-0 lead with 9:47 left in the first quarter.
Nittany Lion defense continues to dominate
Don’t let Larry Johnson’s second record-setting performance in three games fool you — when Penn State wins these days, it does so with defense.
On Saturday, the No. 20 Nittany Lions (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) held the league’s leading offense more than 140 yards below its average, stuffing the Illinois run game and refusing to allow any long passes in an 18-7 victory.
Over the last three games, defense has been the most consistent element in Penn State’s success. The Nittany Lions shut out Northwestern, and an interception returned for a touchdown made the difference in their 13-7 loss at Ohio State. When Illinois (3-6, 2-3) scored late in the fourth quarter, it ended Penn State’s run of 11 consecutive quarters without allowing a touchdown.
“Everyone gets hung up on the shutout, but I don’t worry about that,” defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. “I think we played well and then we got tired toward the end. We made some critical plays and played some good defense.”
That’s a switch from early in the season, when Penn State’s passing game was putting opponents away and the defense was, seemingly, letting them back in the game. Bradley and his crew were roundly criticized after Central Florida made a big fourth-quarter comeback in Penn State’s season opener.