CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It will show up as a loss in the box score, but Illinois held its own for three quarters against one of the best teams in the nation.
The upset-minded Illini welcomed the No. 10 ranked Penn State Nittany Lions on Friday night for their Big Ten conference opener. After a back-and-forth first three quarters, the Nittany Lions were able to escape Champaign victorious, 63-24.
“Just kind of disappointing when you finish that way,” said Illinois head coach Lovie Smith. “Can’t play much worse.”
The Nittany Lions (4-0) found the endzone on all six possessions in the second half, scoring 42 unanswered points after Illinois took a 24-21 lead. The Illini defense was able to keep the Penn State attack under control for much of the first half, but the flood gates opened after halftime. Both quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Miles Sanders torched the Illinois front line with their read option, moving down the field with ease.
McSorley finished his day with 160 yards passing and three touchdowns, and Sanders chipped in 200 rushing yards of his own, to go along with a trio of touchdowns.
And with 87 total points, the two teams combined for over 600 yards rushing, and both coordinators were able to cross off “Trick-Play Touchdown” from their preseason bucket lists.
But while Illinois’ offense was able to carry the load for more than a half, it was Penn State that dominated the fourth quarter and came away with its fourth win of the season.
“I think we played 45 minutes of good football,” said Nick Allegretti, senior offensive lineman and team captain. “We know we’re a good offense. Little things that we keep doing to ourselves hurt us. We get rid of those, and we’re going to be a really fun offense to watch... So far, four teams haven’t been able to stop us if we stay out of our own way.”
Most pundits didn’t consider Friday’s contest winnable for Illinois, but for the better part of the ballgame Illinois (2-2) showed that it belonged to be on the field just as much as Penn State.
“There are things to build on,” Lovie Smith said. “We’re getting better as a team.”
Illinois entered the fourth quarter trailing just 28-24, but that’s when Penn State stepped up and showed why it’s a top-10 team in the country. The Nittany Lions’ offense became very efficient, finding the endzone in under two minutes on four of its six second-half touchdowns.
Illinois controlled the ball for 10:30 in the fourth quarter, but was outscored 35-0.
“Super frustrated with that fourth quarter,” Allegretti said. “At the end of the third, we were down four. Disappointed. Stupid penalties late. Just not the way you want to finish that game. We played 45 minutes of really good football. Although, we late it get away from us, just disappointed with the finish. That’s on myself and the rest of the seniors.”
Certainly, things need to be cleaned up for conference play, but there were a lot of positives for Smith to build on moving forward.
The return of the five suspended players and the continued success of Rod Smith’s backfield committee will be essential while continuing conference play. Running backs Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin teamed up for 160 yards on 24 attempts.
“We go out there and we feel like we can move the ball on anyone,” said lineman Doug Kramer. “We feel like we can run the ball on anyone... We can tell these defenses are getting tired when we’re out there.”
And with an improved rushing attack, more playmakers in the receiving game, and the majority of the defense back and healthy, Illinois might not be as easy a matchup as opposing teams think.
MOMENTS THAT MATTER
- A 51-yard run by Reggie Corbin set up the second quarter touchdown that brought the Illini within one score entering halftime.
- Trenard Davis and Ricky Smalling connected for a touchdown in third quarter with a little help from Rod Smith’s playbook.
HE SAID IT
“We spend a lot more time around here watching film,” running back Reggie Corbin said. “As you can see, our team is way better. The country probably doesn’t think that yet, but they will. It’ll turn around soon.”
Career-high tackles for Bobby Roundtree. He has more solo tackles tonight than his previous career high for assisted+solo (6, three times).— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) September 22, 2018
First career interception for true freshman S Delano Ware.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) September 22, 2018
Illinois gets an extra week to prepare before traveling to New Jersey to take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers knocked off the Illini 35-24 last season in Champaign, but the Scarlet Knights have lost their last two games entering Week 4, including a 41-point blowout at Kansas last weekend.