After Penn State clinched its first Big Ten championship and its first Rose Bowl berth since 1923, quarterback Kerry Collins made it clear the team has a bigger goal in mind.
"We're very happy we're going to the Rose Bowl, but we have a chance at the national title," he said, after leading the second-ranked Nittany Lions to a 35-31 comeback victory over Illinois.
Penn State trails top-ranked Nebraska in the polls and might not be able to win the national championship unless the Cornhuskers lose in the Orange Bowl. However, Illinois coach Lou Tepper was a believer Saturday after watching the Nittany Lions overcome a 21-point deficit for the biggest comeback victory in Joe Paterno's 29 seasons as Penn State coach.
"It's a prejudiced opinion, but I certainly think they're the No. 1 team," Tepper said.
The victory makes Paterno only the fourth coach to take a team to the Big Four bowls. Georgia Tech's Bill Alexander, Tennessee's Bob Neyland and Alabama's Frank Thomas are the others to coach the same school in the Rose, Cotton, Orange and Sugar bowls. Paterno's Nittany Lions have made four trips to the Orange, four to the Sugar and one to the Cotton.
"Some of our fans had some doubts when we went into the Big Ten (last season)," Paterno said. "But I think now, with the chance to go to the Rose Bowl, there's an excitement about being in the Big Ten." .
Penn State's Rose Bowl opponent Jan. 2 has yet to be determined. Oregon can gain the Pac-10 berth by beating Oregon State Saturday. If the Ducks lose, Southern California would go with a victory over UCLA.
Penn State almost didn't clinch its Rose Bowl spot against Illinois, which led 21-0 after the first quarter, 28-14 at halftime and 31-21 after three periods. But fullback Brian Milne scored twice in the fourth quarter, including a 2-yard run with 57 seconds left that gave Penn State its first lead of the game.
The last touchdown climaxed a 14-play, 96-yard drive that was brilliantly directed by Kerry Collins, the nation's leading passer. Collins was 7-for-7 in the drive and 17-for-21 in the second half.
"He's been confident, he's been mentally tough, he's been our leader, and you could see that," said receiver Bobby Engram, who had eight catches for 97 yards.
Collins, who has a 68 percent completion rate, got off to a rocky start. He hit only one of his first nine passes and had one intercepted, which led to Illinois' second touchdown. However, he and his teammates hit their stride in the second half, outscoring the Illini 21-3.
"It was a matter of figuring out what they were doing and adjusting to it," Collins said.
Penn State's defense gave up a season-high 31 points, but stopped Illinois' last-ditch drive for victory when Kim Herring intercepted Johnny Johnson's pass in the end zone on the final play.
"We can score," Paterno said. "My concern was that we had to tighten up the defense."
Illinois' nationally ranked defense shut out Penn State's explosive offense in the first quarter and held the Nittany Lions to 21 points until midway through the fourth period. When they had to score down the stretch, however, the Nittany Lions were unstoppable.
"They're good, no question about it," Illinois defensive coordinator Denny Marcin said. "They did what they had to do to win."
Illinois' Ty Douthard, who rushed for a career-high 172 yards and two touchdowns, refused to call it a moral victory.
"We didn't get the win, so it doesn't help," he said.
Penn State (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) has home games remaining against Northwestern and Michigan State, while Illinois (6-4, 4-3) closes its regular season at Wisconsin Saturday. A win probably would send the Illini to the Hall of Fame Bowl.