On a Friday night in late September, the Illini played their Big Ten opener against Penn State in front of a national audience. Not many expected the Illini to keep pace with an explosive Nittany Lion team led by quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Miles Sanders. But, for two and a half quarters, the Illini allowed us to dream before inevitability reared its cruel head.
An upset brewed midway into the third quarter
As many expected, Penn State jumped out to a 21-7 second quarter lead. Then, Reggie Corbin made a video game move as he helped set up an Illini touchdown to cut Penn State’s lead to 21-14 halfway through the second quarter.
Late in the second quarter, Delano Ware intercepted a deep sideline pass from Trace McSorley. The Illini subsequently drove for a field goal to cut Penn State’s lead to 21-17.
After halftime, the Illini came out with a purpose as they drove down the field and made one of their most memorable plays of 2018: Trenard Davis’ trick play touchdown pass to Ricky Smalling that gave the Illini a 24-21 lead early in the third quarter.
Word got out that the Illini had a second half lead on mighty Penn State. All of a sudden, and for the first time since Lovie was hired, the Illini had the college football world’s undivided attention. Illinois vs. Penn State turned into must-see Friday night TV.
Wow! Illinois TD now leads Penn State 24-21 in the 3Q!— Phil Steele (@philsteele042) September 22, 2018
Illinois has a lead over Penn State. I am completely sober.— BUM CHILLUPS (@edsbs) September 22, 2018
Illinois takes the lead with a trick play, a wide receiver reverse pass. Awesome play call.— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) September 22, 2018
Illinois 24, Penn State 21
10:36 3Q pic.twitter.com/qoXT5CRY5B
What’s more, the hiring of offensive coordinator Rod Smith looked brilliant, and for once, Lovie had the Illini punching far above their weight class.
The inevitable happened
After the Illini took the lead, Penn State scored on its next drive. Then, an avalanche ensued and everything else was chalk.
Over the last 20 minutes of the game, Penn State scored 42 unanswered points and a 24-21 lead halfway through the third turned into the 63-24 blowout loss that everyone expected.
Still, even though the inevitable happened, the first 2.5 quarters felt uncertain — in a hopeful kind of way.
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