Nearly everyone in Memorial Stadium was in an uproar after Penn State’s third touchdown against Illinois, but not Matt Lehman.
Illinois fans, players and coaches were upset that defensive back Earnest Thomas was ejected after a late helmet-to-helmet hit on a Penn State player. The Penn State sideline and its faithful were angered about the blow itself.
Lehman — who received the hit — said he wasn’t bitter after Thomas drilled him.
He was dizzy, though.
“I didn’t see how it happened, I don’t hold anything against the kid,” Lehman said after the Nittany Lions’ victory Saturday.
The tight end was open on a seam route in the second quarter and Matt McGloin found him in the front of the endzone. Lehman had the ball secured and was in the endzone. However, Thomas came in a second later, lowered his head and drilled Lehman.
Flags flew in from every angle and Lehman even held on to the ball. He said he felt the repercussions of the hit for a while, but he kept playing and ended up leading all Penn State receivers with five catches, 70 yards and the touchdown.
Lehman said he didn’t even know Thomas got tossed from the contest until a teammate told him on the sidelines a few minutes later. The redshirt junior added he was a little shaky for about 10-15 minutes after the hit, but recovered at halftime. He was back on the field in the second half and made four grabs for 49 yards.
The 6-foot-6 Newport native started his college days at Shippensburg before transferring, and he did not play a snap for the Nittany Lions until this season. This year, he has grown into one of Penn State’s top receiving tight ends.
Lehman also scored in Penn State’s season-opener against Ohio and his two touchdowns are the second most on the team, while his 137 receiving yards rank him second among Penn State tight ends.
“He’s getting better every week, which is good to see,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “He has to play with a better pad level. He’s a big, tall kid. But he catches the ball well and understands our offense better each week.”
For the first time all season, wideout Allen Robinson was not Penn State’s leading receiver against the Fighting Illini. In fact, Robinson was held to just 35 yards on three catches and was kept out of the endzone.
While Illinois’ defense restricted Robinson, it opened the door for others including Lehman.
“People are really starting to hone in on Allen,” Lehman said. “If he has a lot of people covering him or double coverage or whatever, it’s going to leave other guys open. Today, I just was fortunate to be open on a lot of stuff and make the plays.”
Tight ends continue to be an integral part of O’Brien’s offense and though only two caught passes Saturday (Lehman and redshirt freshman Kyle Carter), they accounted for 115 of the Lions’ 211 yards through the air.
“Matt’s a big target, he’s a great tight end for us,” McGloin said. “He, Kyle Carter, Garry Gilliam, Jesse James, they all do a great job for us. But Matt took a big hit there and he held onto the ball and it was good to see that he’s able to make plays like that.”