STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Christian Hackenberg caught four passes all week in preparation to catch just one on Saturday. Maybe.
But when Penn State running back Nick Scott targeted Hackenberg on an option pass to the end zone in the third quarter, it didn't really matter. The rout was already on, thanks to Hackenberg's own throwing ability and a defense that smothered Illinois.
Hackenberg threw for 266 yards, including two first-quarter touchdowns, and caught a scoring pass from Scott, while Saquon Barkley and Mark Allen scored on runs in Penn State's 39-0 win over Illinois.
"Were getting better," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "You've got receivers making plays. You've got tight ends making plays. You've got multiple running backs making plays. We're working hard to develop these guys."
It looks like it's working.
Penn State's offense had been explosive in small stretches to this point but an inability to protect Hackenberg and run the ball led to mixed results. Against Illinois, Penn State's interior linemen gave Hackenberg plenty of room to step up, avoid outside pressure and fire down the field.
Meanwhile, the Illini couldn't stop Barkley who finished with 142 all-purpose yards and leapt over an Illinois defender and ran through two more to finish his 7-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. It gave Penn State (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) a 32-0 lead.
"That helps everything," Hackenberg said. "Helps our pass game, our screen game and being able to run the football, obviously."
Hackenberg was 21 of 29 and connected with Chris Godwin and Geno Lewis for 5- and 6-yard touchdowns just over a minute apart in the first quarter. Linebacker Troy Reeder set up Lewis' score when he intercepted a Wes Lunt pass over the middle and returned it to the Illini 6.
It was one of three Illinois possessions that didn't end in a punt. The Illini (4-4, 1-3) turned the ball over on downs on the other two and only crossed the 50-yard-line four times.
"They just dominated us," Illinois coach Bill Cubit said. "They dominated every phase."
Hackenberg led a seven-play, 43-yard drive early in the third quarter and found himself uncovered on a halfback option pass from Scott. Although Hackenberg had to stop running to catch the ball, he beat defenders to the goal line to finish the 14-yard scoring play and give his team a 22-0 lead.
While the offense got an early start, Penn State's defense began to dial up its pressure as the game wore on.
Although lllinois had allowed just eight sacks coming into the game, Penn State dialed up its pressure and eventually added four more with defensive end Carl Nassib picking up another to push his national-leading total to 13.5.
Anthony Zettel added a sack and Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren split one.
"It's no surprise to me that they are balling out like they are," safety Marcus Allen said.
Allen and the rest of Penn State's secondary used the consistent pressure to blanket Illinois receivers. Dionte Taylor led the team with 45 receiving yards while Ke'Shawn Vaughn had six catches.
Lunt threw for 129 yards on 16-of-36 passing. He attempted 30 passes by halftime, at which point Penn State led 15-0.
"We knew that if we made them one-dimensional and stop the run they'd have to pass a lot," defensive tackle Austin Johnson said. "That's what we did."
After two of his extra points were blocked and he sailed a kickoff out of bounds, Penn State kicker Joey Julius was replaced by Tyler Davis who made 42- and 28-yard field goals. Mark Allen added a 20-yard touchdown run to cap the scoring.