I really struggled with how to frame the discussion of the Penn State at Illinois football game from last Friday night.
The Illini actually lead Penn State, a Top 10 team in the country, 24-21 in the third quarter. Heck, it was only 28-24 Penn State heading into the 4th quarter. This is real progress, real change from what Illinois fans have endured the last two years.
Then a 35-0 Penn State blitzkrieg happened in the fourth quarter, and it seemed as though all hope is still lost.
In a season preview column, I detailed what I saw as potential trap games for Illinois to either win or lose during the season.
This game was certainly a trap game for Penn State. To wit: Illinois has been exceedingly bad for the last two seasons, and poor before that. Penn State has seen a revival of their proud program coming out of the dark shadows of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Penn State came in undefeated, but not untested, as Appalachian State took the Nittany Lions to overtime in the season opener. Penn State has 4 and 5 star veteran talent all over the field. Illinois has young, less-heralded talent, and some of it coming off suspensions. AND>>>>>Penn State’s next game is their biggest game of the the season, a matchup with The Ohio State University Liars, er, Buckeyes. The Ohio State at Penn State game winner will be in a strong position to claim a spot in the college football playoff if they stay clean the rest of the year.
Here’s the thing about trap games that no one talks about: it’s not just a day-of-the game phenomenon. It’s a whole week of 20 year old kids not really dialed in to their upcoming opponent. It’s about lax preparation which leads to poor results.
We see it all the time in high school ball, where some team beats a team by 30 in the regular season and then gets beat by said team in the playoffs. It happens as sure as so many other things in our imperfect human nature, as we start to think that we have everything under control.
And that’s what I think happened to Penn State in the first 35 minutes of the game at Illinois: kids really not paying attention during film study and maybe not getting fired up to play in front of 35,000 empty seats in Champaign.
To Illinois’ credit, they came prepared to compete, and did so pretty well for 2 1/2 quarters. Previous editions of Illinois football wouldn’t have even been able to do that. The Garrick McGee lead offenses would have stubbled to get a first down all night long, even against a yawning opponent.
Now, to Penn State’s credit, they were able to put their foot on the gas and destroy Illinois over the final 20 minutes of game action, to take a deficit and still easily cover a 29-point spread on the road. Not many teams at any level can go from Deadsville to stomping on an opponent’s throat, but James Franklin’s team did just that.
So, Illinois fans could be hopeful that there is enough athleticism to play well for extended stretches against a good team. Fair enough.
But, honesty compels me to take an alternate view.
Penn State was coming to Illinois on a beautiful Saturday homecoming weekend where they would play in front of only 10,000 empty seats, and what if Penn State had already beaten Michigan and Ohio State and their upcoming opponents were Indiana and Rutgers? So Penn State comes in locked and loaded and plays their best quarter in the first quarter, and boat races Illinois out to a 42-0 lead five minutes into the second quarter?
How would Illinois fans feel then, even if Illinois would still put up a few yards and make a few nice plays?
I contend that Illini-Nation would feel a whole lot worse than they do now.
And, honestly, I don’t know which is better or if any of it matters. I do know that Penn State was still gouging the Illini first-team defense toward the end of the game with their backups in place. I know, also, that Illinois’ first offensive line group played the whole way and got nothing going against Penn State’s back-ups in the last half-quarter. I also know that the Illinois coaching staff missed a golden opportunity to engage some depth pieces as the game got out of hand.
Illinois could have given very inexperienced offensive line and linebacker second-teamers some valuable reps. Specifically, Illinois’ linebackers, Jake Hansen and DelShawn Phillips had their worst games of the season. They would grade out very poorly. And Illinois’ top back-up linebacker, Dele Harding, did not play due to injury. The Illinois staff has used top linebacker recruit Khalan Tolson in every game on kick-off coverage, and I believe I saw him on some punt coverage, too. But Tolson has only received 3 scrimmage snaps in garbage time vs Western Illinois. Literally, in the last minute of the game. Tolson gets 4 games of participation before a red-shirt is burned, so why on Earth would you not get him in the game to see what he can do prior to having to make that decision. 12-15 downs against Penn State would tell you a lot.
All the other freshmen who are playing are getting scrimmage reps. But Lovie doesn’t sub out his linebackers. The D-Line has a rotation, the D-Backs have been in and out a lot, but not the linebackers.
Similarly with the offense. The Running Backs and Wide Receivers and Tight Ends come in and out, but there has been very little substitution on the offensive line. Everyone knows the O-Line is the weakest position group on the team, at least from a depth standpoint. It’s unrealistic to think that Illinois won’t need to rely on a depth piece or two throughout the rest of the Big Ten schedule. A Big Ten schedule that all of a sudden has games that look more winnable at Rutgers, vs Purdue, Northwestern, Nebraska, and Minnesota.
Tolson has a lot of ability. He looks like a Big Ten linebacker. But I don’t want his first meaningful reps to be with the game on the line vs Purdue or Minnesota. The Illini need every single win the program can muster right now in order to give the fan-base hope, appeal to recruits and their families, and to keep the players believing that they are being developed to the best of their abilities. But, when you’re down 3 touchdowns to Penn State with 7 minutes left, it’s time to look at some other guys.
Ultimately, talent wins, especially more mature talent.
And that’s what we saw in the Penn State game. The Nittany Lions’ big Offensive Line wore down Illinois. As the game situation got more dire, you saw a couple instances where Illinois defenders lost gap responsibility trying to go around a blocker rather than defeating him. That is called being beaten up. Not giving up, but being beaten up.
Still, some good things happened. Carmoni Green came back from suspension and looks like the second best receiver on the team. And that’s important, because there’s a huge drop off from Ricky Smalling and Sam Mays to anyone else on the roster.
The starting offensive line looked so much better than at any time last year or even during the first three games of this season. so I see improvement there.
MJ Rivers showed improvement as Rod Smith gave him a bigger bite of the apple with which to work. Rivers protects the ball, and would still be without an interception if not for a deflection off his own receiver.
The offensive scheme looks varied enough to compete and to give opposing defenses some difficulty. This Illinois team will be able to win a game this season even if they give up 28 points. That could not have happened last year.