STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Christian Hackenberg did it all on Saturday.
Not only did the junior Penn State quarterback start off hot and finish 21-of-29 passing for 266 yards and two touchdowns, but he also caught a 14-yard TD pass from running back Nick Scott. It was arguably Hackenberg's best game of the season -- so the final score, a 39-0 Nittany Lions win over Illinois, wasn't much of a surprise.
Hackenberg set the tone early by completing his first seven passes. By the time he threw his first incompletion -- with a minute left in the first quarter -- the Nittany Lions already led 12-0, and the defense showed no signs of letting up.
It was an important game for an oft-criticized signal-caller. He showed poise despite being sacked three times in the first half and, during one memorable play, he avoided several defenders before jumping over a low tackle and running outside for 3 yards.
He didn't miss many passes, and his touchdown reception was the first by a Penn State quarterback since 2004, when Michael Robinson threw a touchdown to Zack Mills.
What the win means for Penn State: This was big. Penn State's marquee win to this point was against San Diego State, and its wins hadn't been too convincing. It slipped past Army, 20-14, and nearly lost to Maryland, 31-30. This game showed this offense isn't a lost cause. It showed PSU can put games away and not let up in the second half. And it showed PSU still has the ability to surprise.
What the loss means for Illinois: A win here could've made the Illini's path to a bowl a much easier one. Instead, it must now finish at least 2-2 to qualify for the postseason. That's the big goal for this program right now. It crept into a bowl last year, and it has the ability to make back-to-back bowls now for only the third time since 1990. Next weekend's game against Purdue now looms as even more important.
Player of the game: Hackenberg. What more could you have possibly asked for from Hackenberg? OK, he didn't rush for a touchdown -- but he did just about everything else. He caught a TD, threw for two and confused the Illini defense. He made this win look effortless.
Unsung hero: Penn State defensive end Carl Nassib. He extended his national lead in sacks with yet another on Saturday -- meaning he's recorded at least one sack in every game this season -- but that's not the reason he's the unsung hero. Even before that sack, he was a force outside of the stat sheet. He constantly pressured the quarterback, and he saved one play by making a one-handed tackle near the sideline. Getting a sack Saturday was nice, but he was still dominant otherwise.
Top play: There were quite a few to choose from, for a change. But it still has to be the Scott TD pass to Hackenberg. It's not a play you see often, and it definitely caught Illinois off-guard.
The game turned when ...: Late in the first quarter, linebacker Troy Reeder intercepted a pass from Wes Lunt and ran it back 44 yards to the Illinois 6-yard line. Penn State scored a touchdown one play later. That gave PSU a 12-point lead and, with the way the defense plays against pocket-passers, Illinois dug itself a big hole at that point.