Penn State: Seldom-used tight end Matt Lehman makes splash with second-half heroics against Illinois
Penn State head coach Bill O''Brien gives instructions to his team from the sidelines during the first half of the Illinois game.
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Matt Lehman answered the training staff's questions correctly, so he was allowed to re-enter the Illinois game after halftime. In the next two quarters, it was clear he recovered from a nasty collision, finishing with a career-high five receptions for 70 yards.
"I always had confidence in my ability," said Lehman, a junior tight end. "It was being able to go out in practice and show coaches what I can do."
He considered the victory against Illinois the best game of his career. Of course, such a superlative could not be assigned to Lehman's performance Saturday without discussion of the play that prompted the injury concerns.
It was late in the second half, with Penn State leading, 14-0, when Matt McGloin connected on a 21-yard pass to Lehman. He caught the ball and stepped into the end zone for a touchdown as Illinois defensive back Earnest Thomas III drilled him in what the referees considered a helmet-to-helmet hit. Thomas was ejected.
Coach Bill O'Brien feared it might be a concussion, but later said Lehman had the wind knocked out of him. Lehman said he correctly told the coaches at halftime the score of the game and what play he ran when he scored the touchdown.
Such collisions can be scary for anyone, particularly those with the resume of Lehman, who had barely contributed until this season and would not want to lose any time to injury. He came to Penn State as a walk-on in the spring of 2011 after attending Shippensburg and Penn State Harrisburg and did not play last season.
When O'Brien became coach, Lehman sensed an opportunity. He complimented his coach's system for allowing him to flourish at tight end.
From the beginning of this fall, his emergence was apparent. He caught a 14-yard touchdown pass in the season opener against Ohio. Lehman also had a touchdown in the Blue-White game in the spring.
"He catches the ball well and understands the offense better every week," O'Brien said.
On Saturday, he was something else. The collision did nothing to stop him. Not only did he hold onto the ball and score the touchdown, he caught four of his five passes in the second half.
Lehman was no longer the walk-on who didn't even play last season. He was Penn State's leading receiver.
"Whenever teams are scouting us, they have to account for Allen [Robinson] and that leaves other guys open," Lehman said of Penn State's leading receiver. "Today, that was me."
NOTES -- Linebacker Michael Mauti was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week for his performance Saturday against Illinois. Mauti had two interceptions, including one he returned for 99 yards, a forced fumble, six tackles and half a sack. Mauti leads Penn State with 48 tackles for the season.
First Published October 1, 2012 12:00 am