CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- They had been fighting back all afternoon. They had been three touchdowns behind before the first quarter ended, two touchdowns behind at halftime and 10 points down going into the fourth quarter.
Penn State's dreams of an undefeated season and a national championship were being --ed, early on by its own mistakes and then by a surprisingly explosive Illinois offense. But the Nittany Lions never lost hope, especially after quarterback Kerry Collins regained his poise.
"I think it was just a matter of figuring out what we were doing and adjusting to what they were doing," Collins would say later.
The nation's second-ranked team kept those dreams alive yesterday at misty Memorial Stadium. With a pair of touchdowns by reserve fullback Brian Milne in the final 7:59, Penn State roared back to beat the Illini, 35-31, before a stunned sellout crowd of 72,364.
Milne's 2-yard run with 57 seconds remaining -- his third touchdown of the game -- capped a 96-yard drive and what would turn out to be the biggest comeback of Joe Paterno's 29-year head coaching career. It gave the Nittany Lions (9-0, 6-0) their first Big Ten championship since joining the league two years ago and secured the school's first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1923.
"We were a little ragged [in the first quarter]," said Paterno, whose team's turnovers on two of its first three possessions led to Illinois touchdowns. "I told them at halftime, 'Just play our game, stay in there and we'll be all right.' "
But after cutting their 28-14 halftime deficit to seven with the help of Ki-Jana Carter's 4-yard touchdown run to open the third quarter, the game seemed to be slipping away from the Nittany (( Lions.
A 27-yard field goal by 6-foot-4, 270-pound Chris Richardson gave Illinois a 31-21 lead with 4:46 left in the third quarter. A drive to the Illinois 12-yard line stalled, and a blown 33-yard field-goal attempt by Penn State's Brian Conway followed.
"The defense knew that if we kept giving the ball back to the offense, they would score," said defensive end Todd Atkins.
The Penn State offense, ranked first in the country in total yardage and second in scoring, came alive in the last 10 minutes. The defense, which had problems stopping both quarterback Johnny Johnson and sophomore tailback Ty Douthard (35 carries, 172 yards) clamped down.
And the Illinois defense, ranked first in the Big Ten and second nationally in points allowed, faltered down the stretch. "We couldn't come up with the big play when we needed to," said defensive tackle Jason Edwards.
With the help of a key first down by Carter (110 yards on 22 !! carries) on fourth-and-one at the Illinois 32, Penn State cut its deficit to 31-28 as Milne finished an eight-play, 54-yard drive by pushing his way in from the 5.
Still, things didn't look promising for the Nittany Lions. Especially after Illinois' Brett Larsen launched a 67-yard punt that rolled to the Penn State 4 with a little over six minutes left. "I thought that punt broke our backs," said Paterno.
It didn't. Collins, the nation's Division I-A pass efficiency leader, kept dodging bullets and throwing them. After a 1-yard run by Carter started the drive, Collins hit four straight passes to reach midfield.
"There was no tension," recalled Collins, who had started the game by missing on eight of his first nine passes but wound up 24 of 38 for 300 yards. "We were trying to take it one play at a time."
Said Illinois All-America linebacker Dana Howard: "We knew we needed to come up with one more stop and we'd win the game."
The Illini (6-4, 4-3) couldn't. Carter went for 7 yards into Illinois territory, Milne for 3 more. Collins hit tight end Kyle Brady for 6 yards, and two passes to Bobby Engram for an other 25. With the clock ticking down, Milne went 7 yards to the Illinois 2. Collins hit seven straight passes for 60 yards on the last drive.
"They nickel-and-dimed us," said Howard, who finished with 11 tackles to tie the Big Ten's career record. "But we couldn't stop them."
Finally, Milne plunged in from the 2 to silence the crowd and send the Penn State sideline into an uproar. Paterno, meanwhile, was worried that his team had scored too soon.
But what had the makings of a major upset ended when Johnson, after driving the Illini from its 20 to the Penn State 31, threw a Hail Mary pass that was intercepted in the end zone by safety Kim Herring.
"We let one get away," said Johnson, who finished 17 of 34 for 199 yards and two touchdowns. "That's basically it. Penn State is a good football team. But I think we showed we can play with anybody."
Illinois coach Lou Tepper told the media what he had said to his players: "Don't look so sad. The sun will come up tomorrow."
It will certainly come up for Penn State. It will shine all the way to Pasadena.
Virginia 46, Maryland 21
Morgan St. 17, Howard 14
Towson St. 48, S. Conn. 0
Florida 48, S. Carolina 17
Alabama 29, Mississippi St. 25
Auburn 23, Georgia 23