In the end, it was a score many of us predicted.
Illinois came to play early, especially on offense. However, Penn State ran through the defense like a knife through hot butter. I mean "ran" too, as they racked up 387(!) yards just running the ball, led by Miles Sanders and his 200 yards and three touchdowns on just 22 carries. It was a tale of basically three quarters and a fourth that should be forgotten forever, burned in a trash heap, never to be seen again. Illinois has made progress, but winning is still a foreign concept to this team. Let's get to it by starting with some positives.
The running game looks Big Ten ready.
Illinois did some running of its own, of course, keeping them in the game through three. Averaging over 200 yards rushing per game, Illinois telegraphed what they do well on offense, yet Penn State still couldn't stop them for stretches. 245 yards rushing against a top-10 team is encouraging. Epstein and Corbin both look explosive and ready to run roughshod over some Big Ten West teams.
Most encouraging was the play of the offensive line. There were several plays where the hole opened up wide enough to drive a truck through, in commentator parlance, and they kept MJ Rivers mostly upright. This line clearly likes to run block. They were moving people. This is what a Big Ten line looks like.
It's refreshing for a team that's been saddled with some serious deficiency in that regard for years. We should be able to run on anybody the rest of the way.
Rod Smith is our God, and we should bow to him.
Rod Smith had a good game last night. His play calling was simple but inspired. Run the ball. Let MJ Rivers get comfortable. Throw some trickeration in for good measure. Do what you do best.
And for most of the game, it worked.
Feed the studs should be the mantra of any good offensive coordinator. That was on full display last night. Getting Mike Epstein, Reggie Corbin and Ricky Smalling the ball in space will be a winning strategy going forward.
You definitely have to be encouraged with how Rivers played in just his second start as a true freshman against a really good opponent. He looked as if he's starting to get it, slowly but surely. He's got a long way to go, and if AJ Bush is ready for Rutgers, you play him. It's good to know you have a guy like Rivers in your back pocket though.
Let's talk about that defense...
My goodness. That might be the worst defensive performance I've seen in 10 years for Illinois, and we've had a lot of those. Penn State literally did whatever it wanted. Trace McSorley didn't have a great day throwing the ball, but he didn't need to. They ran over, around and through our defense.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Illinois were supposed to be bolstered by the return of Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs. Two players can't help this defense alone. I'm not sure anything can.
Allowing over 1,100 yards and almost 90 points to the last two opponents is troubling. You could make the argument that the quality of said opponents might have something to do with it. If the Illini get beat like this against Rutgers and Purdue, it would be time to panic about lost seasons and whatnot. For now, it's still a disconcerting trend that won't easily be fixed. Luckily, Illinois has a bye to clean some things up.
Lovie Smith's conservativism will drive you crazy.
Kicking a 55-yard field goal early when you're trailing at home to a top-10 team, and going for it seems prudent? Kicking a field goal late when you're down by 18? Punting from your own 45? These are the quintessential plays of Lovieball.
They will drive you mad. Trust me, as a Bears fan, for years I would rant and rave as Lovie would call for a punt from the team's 42 down by 7 late in the game. It can be frustrating for fans to see Illinois playing it safe in a game where playing it safe won't cut it. Get used to it.
This is Lovieball. He has no time for your rational incredulity. Playing it conservative will win you games, granted. It will also cost you many.
Illinois has the week off and then resumes play against Rutgers on Oct. 6 in Piscataway.
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