I need to start this post by owning up to my pregame prediction:
Matt Rejc: Penn State 52, Illinois 6
This is just about the worst possible situation for the Illini to be in after the shutout loss to Wisconsin. The team has had a bye week to think about their poor performance against the Badgers, and they are now thrown into a hopeless game on the road against Penn State. The Nittany Lions are reeling from their close loss at Iowa two weeks ago, and will be hungry to make a statement win this week against an opponent who won’t be able to stand up to them. About the best Illinois can hope for in this game is that they don’t suffer any further injuries.
Let’s unpack that second sentence there. It seems clear to me now that the Illini players and coaches didn’t ruminate over their previous game. Rather, they focused on improving and learning. Especially given the quasi-scandal of Bret Bielema’s out-of-context quote regarding the offensive line, it could’ve been very easy for the team to give up on this game and maybe even the rest of the season.
Instead, the Illini decided to fight.
It wasn’t just the younger players looking to find their places in the future of Bret’s program, or only the older players looking to get one more big win in their careers. The entire team that came together and accomplished what I and so many others thought was impossible.
They went to Happy Valley and beat No. 7 Penn State as a team.
To get the obvious details out of the way, the box score looks like something from a completely different sport. Illinois lost the turnover margin by 3, yet the Illini outgained the Nittany Lions 395 to 227 and held the ball for 36:25 compared to 23:35 for Penn State. Losing the turnover margin that badly to the No. 7 team in the nation and still winning the game is simply an incredible feat and a testament to Bielema’s play style.
Chase Brown and Josh McCray were the only backs to record significant rushing yards in regulation, and they each had phenomenal performances. Brown ran for 223 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries, while McCray followed up with 142 yards on 24 carries. The two players have different styles, but they’re both irreplaceable components of Illinois’ offense, and I’m hoping Chase Brown is able to get back on the field soon.
Art Sitkowski largely took care of the ball and facilitated this offense as well as he could. Penn State’s secondary was outstanding in coverage, which meant that Sitkowski usually needed to throw perfect passes to get the ball into the hands of his receivers. Although he only recorded 38 passing yards on eight copmletions, it turned out to be all the Illini needed. I’m also hoping for a quick recovery for Sitkowski from what looked to be a nasty arm/wrist injury in overtime.
Brown and McCray stole the show on offense, but their impact was facilitated by an incredible performance from the entire offensive line. Doug Kramer looked like his 2019 self again, while Alex Palzcewski and Alex Pihlstrom put on some of their best performances as well. That said, it was unfortunate to see Vederian Lowe in a boot at halftime, and I’m hoping for his quick recovery. With regards to the younger players, the performance of true freshman Zachary Barlev was certainly notable, since he made his first career start in this game and held his own against one of the nation’s best defensive fronts. Barlev and Julian Pearl look to potentially be the anchors of Illinois’ future offensive lines.
In spite of Illinois only throwing the ball for 38 yards, both Isaiah Williams and Casey Washington came up with crucial plays when the Illini needed them. Obviously Washington’s game-winning catch was the walk-off, but Williams’ conversion in the EIGHTH OVERTIME to keep the game alive was a truly legendary effort, best summed up by Bret Bielema.
#illini coach Bret Bielema: "I tell you the greatest thing I saw today was Isaiah Williams doing everything he could to get in that end zone. Probably the littlest guy on the field in that moment, but he played as big as anyone out there.”— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) October 23, 2021
To wrap up the offense, it’s safe to say now that the Illini have finally established a real identity on that side of the ball:
The Illinois defensive front had one of its best games in recent memory, as well.
On the interior, Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. led the line with five and four tackles respectively. But of even greater importance was their ability to take up space and attract blockers, which gave defensive backs like Devon Witherspoon and linebackers like Tarique Barnes easy access to the backfield. Owen Carney led the way among edge rushers with three tackles and one critical TFL on Sean Clifford. But the play that best exemplified the defensive front’s impact today was this stonewalling of Brenton Strange in 6OT.
Tarique Barnes led all Illini defenders with seven tackles and 1.0 TFL, while Khalan Tolson also recorded six tackles and 1.0 TFL. This was Tolson’s first game since Jake Hansen announced his declaration for the draft earlier in the week, and his performance today echoed his play during Illinois’ 2019 victory at Michigan State, when he first started in Hansen’s place after Jake went down with an injury the week prior.
The Illinois secondary had a monstrous day overall, with veterans Tony Adams and Devon Witherspoon leading the way after each logging six tackles. Adams recorded 1.0 TFL, but Witherspoon’s back-to-back TFLs in the fourth quarter were downright electrifying. Corner blitzes are incredibly risky, especially in an extremely close game, but the play call by Ryan Walters certainly paid dividends today.
On special teams, James McCourt and the field goal unit came through when they were needed. McCourt missed a tough 50-yarder in the third quarter, but hit everything else. Blake Hayes, who naturally called the coin flip for the Illini before the first overtime, punted at his typical elite level. However, the most important special teams play of the the day may very well belong to former walk-on Tailon Leitzsey, who recovered a muffed punt at the end of the fourth quarter and kept the Illini in the game. His humility about the play is certainly admirable.
All glory to God first. This was a team effort.— Tailon Leitzsey (@TailonLeitzsey) October 23, 2021
All in all, what a day for Illini fans everywhere. Bret Bielema records his 100th college football win, the Illini upset No. 7 Penn State on their Homecoming, and there’s once again life in the Illinois football program.