It’s time for the new guy to take over.
With head coach-in-the-waiting Bret Bielema watching from the stands, Illinois (2-6) couldn’t keep up with Penn State (4-5), losing 56-21 in Happy Valley on Saturday Night.
The Illini fought hard without many starters and coaches, but the Nittany Lions ultimately spoiled Rod Smith’s head coaching debut.
“It was definitely a unique experience,” said interim head coach Rod Smith. “Obviously we wish the outcome of the game was better... but at the same time I’m proud of our guys.”
Penn State got off to a quick start. A 75-yard strike from quarterback Sean Clifford to Jahan Dotson gave the Nittany Lions a lead just 12 seconds into the game. Clifford finished the game with 285 yards and a pair of scores — both to Dotson, who had a career-high 189 yards receiving.
Illinois was without its defensive coordinator/head coach Lovie Smith, linebackers coach Miles Smith and 47% of its starts on defense all season long. Fittingly, Penn State’s second play from scrimmage resulted in a fumble recovered by Devon Witherspoon.
“We may not have executed,” Smith said, “but our kids didn’t quit.”
Aside from that, defense was hard to come by. The Nittany Lions gashed the Illini for big play after big play — tallying over 500 total yards of offense. Jake Hansen stepped up with nine tackles, including 2.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks, but it wasn't enough to slow down Penn State.
“For all of us it just increased motivation to show Coach Bielema we’re a good team,” Hansen said.
The Illini offense was without NFL draft declare-ee Josh Imatorbhebhe among others, but exploded for 21 first-quarter points — it was tough sledding from that point forward.
Brandon Peters technically started the game for Illinois at quarterback. He threw a backward pass to Isaiah Williams and the freshman connected with Chase Brown for 33-yards to start the drive, which would be his only until 20 seconds left in the third quarter.
Williams handled most of the quarterbacking from that point forward — potentially as an audition for his new head coach. The East St. Louis native threw for 120 yards and two touchdowns. Williams adds a true dual-threat element to the offense, and he added 102 yards on the ground.
“The plan was to go with Isaiah (Williams) at quarterback, let him run the show,” Smith said.
Illinois held a 21-14 lead at one point, but that lead slipped into 35 unanswered for the Nittany Lions and a 49-21 edge heading into the fourth.
Saturday’s game was potentially the last some of these seniors will play in orange and blue (although due to COVID-19 they will all be granted an extra season of eligibility).
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
- Lovie Ball?: The Illini defense forced a Penn State turnover on the Nittany Lions second play from scrimmage, setting up Illinois for its first score.
- House Call: After an Isaiah Williams TD pass to Brian Hightower, Penn State returned the ensuing kick off for a touchdown to give the Nittany Lions a 14-7 lead.
- Penn State scored 14 points in its first 37 seconds with the ball.
- Illinois scored 21 point in the first nine minutes of play — more than they have scored in three games this year.
- Jahan Dotson racked up a career high 189 yards receiving in Saturday’s contest.
• Illinois is missing 47% of its total starts on defense (36/77).— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) December 19, 2020
• Illinois is missing six defensive starters for the second straight game: DT Perry, DT Woods, LB Tolson, DB Adams, DB S. Brown, DB Hobbs.
• Illinois has two scholarship LBs available: Hansen, Eifler
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Daniel Barker took this to the house and broke out the moves.
Oh yeah, and this happened today.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Two quarterbacks? Might as well use them both. A 33-yard pass from Peters -> Williams -> Brown led to this:
TWEET OF THE GAME
Rod Smith is slowly moving up my list of “best interim Illinois coaches of all-time”— Bezhanishviliville (@breitwieser) December 19, 2020
HE SAID IT
“Anytime you’re a player or a coach and you have the opportunity to play or coach a football game, you’re alway being evaluated,” — interim head coach Rod Smith on playing in front of head coach to be Bret Bielema.
The Illini’s next scheduled game is in Ireland on Aug. 28, 2021 against Nebraska to kick off coach Bret Bielema’s first season with Illinois.