CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Way, way too many mistakes.
Following a rough loss on the road to Kansas, Illinois faced off against No. 7 Penn State Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Coming into the game as 14.5-point underdogs, the Illini needed many things to go their way to pull off a big upset win. One thing they couldn’t afford to lose was the turnover battle, but they lost it in a big way at home.
Capitalizing off five Illinois turnovers — four interceptions thrown by Luke Altmyer — Penn State (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten) cruised to a 30-13 victory.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The first quarter was a disaster for the Illinois (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) offense. What looked like a promising first drive ended in a missed field goal, and the three drives that followed all resulted in turnovers (one fumble, two interceptions).
Despite the offensive struggles, the Illinois defense changed the narrative from the first two weeks. Multiple stops from inherited drives in its own territory — including a goal-line stand — held Penn State to only two field goals.
The Nittany Lions wouldn’t be held out of the end zone for long, though. Shortly after Altmyer’s second interception, lead running back Kaytron Allen rushed it in from four yards out.
Up 13-0, Penn State threatened to add more with a long field goal attempt. Preseason All-American Johnny Newton had different ideas, blocking said kick. This gave the Illini a much-needed spark, as it was followed by the first Illini touchdown — a five-yard run by Reggie Love.
“As bad as things went offensively in the first half, I thought we responded in a proper way at the end of the second quarter,” said head coach Bret Bielema.
Penn State added a field goal heading into halftime, and both offenses stalled for most of the third quarter until Penn State running back Trey Potts turned a halfback toss into the first passing touchdown of the day. The trick play was a deflating blow that set the tone the rest of the way.
After Altmyer’s fourth interception in three quarters, backup QB John Paddock finished out the final quarter for the Illini.
“We didn’t have a good enough game plan for [Altmyer] to be successful,” Bielema said.
Paddock’s struggles were clear in his first few drives, but a late touchdown to freshman receiver Malik Elzy rounded out a decent appearance for the Ball State transfer.
Despite the loss, the defense performed up to its preseason expectations for the first time this year. Penn State’s formidable rushing attack only recorded 4.1 yards per carry, and in freshman quarterback Drew Allar’s first road game, he was held to 16/33 passing and no touchdowns.
However, the costly turnovers proved to be too much for the Illini to overcome. Their short offensive possessions gave the defense no time to rest, and eventually Penn State’s attack broke the game wide open.
“Anytime you have five turnovers, it doesn’t matter how well you play on defense,” Bielema said. “You’re not going to have success.”
If you go back to last season, Illinois has now lost its last three Big Ten contests at home. To compete for the Big Ten West this year, the Illini will need to change that soon.
“I’m not happy to be 1-2,” Bielema said. “But we’ve learned a lot of really good lessons and we’ve learned some things I think that can help us in the nine games ahead.”
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Reggie Love FOUGHT for the first touchdown of the day.
Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich had a trick up his sleeve here.
Credit Ryan Meed with a blocked punt in the third quarter.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) September 16, 2023
It is Illinois' first blocked punt since Dawson DeGroot vs. Western Illinois in 2018.
TWEET OF THE GAME
The Illini didn’t impress, but our photographers always do.
Illinois will remain at home and welcome in Florida Atlantic a week from today.
Kickoff against the Owls will be at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 23 and will air on BTN.