Illinois took the lead 24-21 with 10:36 remaining in the third quarter against a blue-chip ratio, top-10 ranked Penn State. This wasn’t like the USF game where Illinois was outplayed and only in the game because of several huge gaffs from the Bull. Illinois was playing well. The offense was running the ball as well as I’ve seen them since Mikel Leshoure destroyed the Wildcats at Wrigley Field. The defense was struggling a bit, but hey, it’s Penn State. Illinois was in this. They made this a game.
Unfortunately, after that point, Illinois was outscored 42-0 and Penn State ended up with a 63-24 victory, easily covering the four touchdown spread. I expected Illinois to struggle late in the game. I knew the wheels would likely fall off, but my lord.
Illinois has a bye week next and will have a chance to reset after that awful fourth quarter. It may be best to simply ignore it, and move on. There is nothing much to learn from that other than Illinois ran out of gas and Penn State is the much, much, much more talented team.
But, for the purposes of grades, we can’t just totally ignore the fourth quarter. Has a team ever had a worse fourth quarter after trailing only 28-24? I really want to know?
However, we shouldn’t let the final score overshadow what was some real progress on the offensive side of the ball. There are some really huge positives after this game unlike USF.
Rod Smith: B+
In 2017, the Illinois offense averaged less than 300 total yards per game (280.4) and scored only 15.4 points per game. So far in 2018 the offense is much improved with those numbers jumping up to 409 yards and 27 points per game. Two of these games were against an FCS opponent and Kent State — and the numbers will go down a bit after going through Big Ten play — but this improvement has been drastic. Illinois has gone from one of the worst offenses in college football to one that isn’t half-bad.
That’s all thanks to Rod Smith. Smith loves to run the ball and run quickly. Also unlike Garrick McGee, he remembered that Reggie Corbin exists. Smith has used Corbin and Mike Epstein to lead a Illinois to an amazing improvement in running the ball (243.5 in 2018, 105.6 in 2017).
The first half last night was a master class in play-calling from Rod Smith in his first year in total charge of an offense. Penn State was sitting back and Smith was more than happy to take advantage. He took advantage of several number situations — Reggie Corbin’s bubble screen comes to mind — and kept things simple for a team with a young QB. “Hey, they only have 5 guys here and we have 6 blockers” kinds of play calls.
He even showed some trickeration and had former QB Trenard Davis throw a TD pass on a reverse.
I love what Rod Smith has done so far, but I can’t quite give him an A. After starting well the last two games, the Illini offense has stalled in the second half. USF and Penn State didn’t seem to know what exactly to expect out of the Illini, but once they figured it out they shut Illinois down. This may be due more to Illinois’ talent level than Smith’s play-calling, but it is an area to look out for when Illinois goes deeper into conference play. If the Illini want to pick up a Big Ten win, they’ll need a full 60 minute game from the offense.
Over the last two games the Illini have allowed 1,271 yards on defense at a 10.1 yard per play clip. USF and Penn State are the two most explosive offenses that Illinois will play this year, but god damn.
Penn State ran for 387 yards, and the Illini had no answers for the read option plays Penn State was running or even just the simple power running plays with Miles Sanders.
The large reason was this was the complete control of the line of scrimmage that Penn State had in this game. Illinois once again couldn’t get any pressure on the QB. Illinois had only one sack in garbage — Bobby Roundtree, who was the only Illini defender I would say had a good game (12 tackles, 2 for a loss). Sanders was also turning what should have been 2 or 3 yard gains into 6 or 7 yard gains, powering through the undersized Illini defensive line.
Lovie Smith refused to adjust to this, and kept with his no blitzing “bend-but-don’t-break” style. And because of the lack of good defensive line play, Illinois ran out of gas and completely broke in this game.
Reggie Corbin: A
Are we sure that Mike Epstein is the best running back on the team?
After only rushing for 78 yards in 2017 after being put in Garrick McGee’s doghouse, Corbin has rushed for more than 78 yards in three out of the four games in 2018. He is explosive and can make someone miss in a phone booth. He is averaging 6.8 yards per rush, the same as Epstein.
Corbin had 96 yards on only 11 carries in this one along with 2 catches for 13 yards. Corbin finally has a offensive coordinator who can use his skills, and Corbin is taking full advantage of the chance.
Offensive Line: B-
The offensive line was better this week, much better, but still has its struggles. The run blocking was very good in the first half. This is a unit that is far better run blocking than in pass protection — Kendrick Green and Alex Palczewski especially — but they only allowed MJ Rivers to be sacked one time.
There were a few plays, however, where the line was badly beaten and allowed Penn State to force negative plays that killed off momentum in drives.
Compared to what we have seen this was a solid game from the line. Hopefully this points to signs of progress.
Carmoni Green: B
Carmoni Green was the only returning suspended player that made a real impact on the game. He had 4 catches and 49 yards, and drew a pass interference on a broken play where MJ Rivers was forced to just throw the ball up.
Illinois needs a lot more production from the receivers, and Green seems to be the best bet to step into that No. 2 role behind Smalling. Green will be slotted in at the X posistion moving forward and will provide a better deep threat that Sam Mays and others have.
The 4th Quarter:
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