Paterno, offense, search for answers for struggling offense

Sunday, October 22nd 2006, 1:19 pm

By: News On 6

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) _ Slouched back in his chair, Tony Hunt stared ahead and spoke softly.

He didn't have many answers for Penn State's sputtering offense.

``Why we played bad?'' Hunt said. ``I don't know, we just played really bad.''

Then he reminded those gathered around him, ``You've got to remember though, we did win the football game.''

The 26-12 victory Saturday over Illinois did help Penn State (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) keep pace in the race to be the best team in the conference not named Ohio State or Michigan. The Buckeyes and Wolverines are likely headed to rich paydays in the Bowl Championship Series, but the Nittany Lions remain on target for a New Year's Day bowl game thanks to the Big Ten's conference tie-ins.

That could change if Penn State's offense continues to struggle, especially with critical road contests looming the next two weeks at Purdue and Wisconsin.

Asked to comment on his team's offensive play, coach Joe Paterno used the word ``lousy'' about a half-dozen times.

And don't get JoePa started on the offensive line.

``It's tough to get any rhythm because we're so inconsistent up front. Pass protection, running game,'' Paterno said. ``Until we get better up front ... we're not going to be real good.''

A homecoming weekend crowd of more than 108,000 jammed into Beaver Stadium to watch Illinois (2-6, 1-3) outgain Penn State in total yardage (358-184) and first downs (19-10). Hunt finished with 52 yards, his second straight subpar performance.

Paterno was so concerned at halftime with his team down 9-3 that he implored his defense in the locker room to make big plays.

Thirty minutes later, the Lions had a fumble return for a touchdown, two interceptions by Anthony Scirrotto, a safety and a win.

Special teams pitched in, too. Scirrotto returned an onside kick for a touchdown, A.J. Wallace had a couple of nice kickoff returns and Jeremy Kapinos boomed eight punts that often pinned Illinois deep in its own territory.

``We didn't go out there and beat Illinois,'' Paterno said. ``Our defense kept us in the game until they made a couple of mistakes.''

Some of the blame for the Illini can be placed on quarterback Isiah ``Juice'' Williams. Making his fifth career start, the athletic freshman looked pretty savvy, especially early on, in guiding an Illini offense that used option plays to move easily on Penn State's solid run defense.

Williams' legs helped get him out of trouble at times, though the Lions were able to get defensive pressure and registered six sacks. Illinois was also hurt by two interceptions on long, questionable throws and a Williams fumble that was picked up by cornerback Tony Davis for a Nittany Lion touchdown.

``You are going to be a better player in your second year than your first year,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said. ``He doesn't get down too much. He works hard to try to learn from his mistakes.''

Paterno hopes his offense does the same. Besides the line, Illinois stopped receiver Derrick Williams, who couldn't shake free in one-on-one situations. There were a couple dropped balls, too, by receivers.

``I've got to go home, take a look at some tapes, look at things and evaluate some people,'' Paterno said. ``We were lousy, OK. I mean what else can I say?''

NOTES: Kapinos moved into first place on the school career yardage list for punters with 9,578 after his eight-punt, 365-yard performance against Illinois. Ralph Giacomarro held the previous mark (9,402).

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