In the first half especially, Illinois committed some very costly penalties. Two personal fouls for illegal hits, one for launching on Terry Hawthorne and one for helmet-to-helmet contact on Earnest Thomas, put Illinois in a bad hole. Thrown in an illegal use of hands to the face by Feldmeyer in the third on a critical drive, and 15 yards at a time adds up fast. On top of those, a running into the kicker penalty on freshman V'Angelo Bentley turned what was just a field goal into an opportunity for Penn State to come away with a touchdown instead. A hold and a couple offsides penalties dotted the half, but the 15 yarders are always the worst.
2. Special Teams Miscues
The Illinois defense held fast on the first drive of the game, forcing a Penn State punt after quick stops, but punt returner Tommy Davis misfielded the punt, fumbling it, and allowing Penn State to recover at about the Illinois 30. Already mentioned was the running into the kicker penalty on Bentley. As if those two weren't enough, kicker Taylor Zalewski missed a 27-yard field goal after a 52 yard Donovonn Young run set Illinois up in scoring position. Give Bentley credit, though. He came back the next time down the field and blocked a FG right at the end of the half.
3. Run Game Needs Orientation
I mentioned this on Twitter earlier in the game, but I'm still trying to figure out why most of Josh Ferguson's running is north-south, downhill running while Donovonn Young is the one trying to stretch plays out to the sideline and get the edge. It seems backwards to me, because when Ferguson is on the edge in space, he's a threat with the ball. And Young is a big, strong running back, so it would make sense for him to hit a gap hard either between the tackles or right on the edge.
4. Quarterback Quandary
Nathan Scheelhaase played the entire first half at quarterback for Illinois, but with the exception of a few scrambles, he limited his running. He made some plays passing to extend drives in the second quarter, but I noticed him missing open receivers in the redzone on a couple occasions. Reilly O'Toole has some mechanics to work on, but he seems to scan his reads better, but he doesn't have the leadership dynamic and athletic ability that Scheelhaase does. Should be an interesting storyline to follow as the Big Ten season continues, especially after a big hit in the third that sidelined him.
5. Offensive Line Shuffle
The Illinois offensive line has been in flux all season, which is never good. Injuries have had top starters Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton in and out of the lineup, and even Feldmeyer and others have played dinged up. Sometimes the line holds up, and sometimes it collapses before the quarterback even finishes his 5-step drop. With the carousel of offensive linemen going on, it's hard to build consistency, unity, and confidence in their blocking ability. They need to get healthy and get a lineup set if at all possible.
6. The Young and The Restless
Illinois doesn't have a ton of depth to speak of, and the Big Ten is an unforgiving league. That means that the young guys on the team are going to be counted on bigtime. I wish there was more to it, but these guys have to grow up in a hurry. A few guys have already stepped in and made an impact like Mason Monheim and V'Angelo Bentley, but it takes more than just those two to make it happen, especially with over half the season remaining.
7. Keep the D Guessing
If there's one thing Illinois fans hate, it's being predictable. It's something they complained about when Paul Petrino was running the offense, and it's something they're carefully watching under the new staff, but just when Penn State fell asleep, Illinois hit the Nittany Lions with the old schoolyard halfback pass, and Josh Ferguson made it happen to Spencer Harris from 22 yards out. Obviously you can't go wild with trick plays all of the sudden, but teams need to be ready for anything, so showing that you're willing to use a play like that adds another degree of guesswork for defensive coordinators. Plus I'm sure Ferguson will enjoy having the highest QB rating on the team.
If there's one thing that's really improved from last year, it's the punting, especially by sophomore Justin DuVernois. Last year DuVernois played much like you'd expect a freshman to play. This year he's catching the ball, taking a one-step drop, and booming his punts. Especially in this one, he had a 57 yarder that pinned Penn State down at their 1-yard line, setting Illinois up for their first score of the game. Every yard counts, so whatever field position he can give the Illini will be valuable.
9. Playing In Their Backfield
The Illinois defensive line hasn't been getting the pressure on opposing team's quarterbacks the way they had hoped so far. Nobody is more frustrated about that than Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan. Because of that, the Illinois secondary hasn't had the forgiveness they had on pass coverage that they had last year, and any small slip up can be costly. Illinois will need to step up the pressure they get on defense at the line of scrimmage.
10. One Man Island
Speaking of the defensive backs, Illinois is sorely missing Tavon Wilson this year. They still have Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green starting at corner, and V'Angelo Bentley has made some nice plays from time to time, but pass coverage has been a mixed bag so far this year. Passes are often open in the flat, leaving 5-6 yard gains before any contact is made. Many times when opposing receivers catch the ball, it takes the Illinois defensive back a couple steps to react and get back to his man. Might explain why the linebackers have been dropped into coverage more often, but by doing that it takes away from the ability to stuff the run, and something's gotta give.
Illinois has undoubtedly had their struggles so far this season, and it'll take a big effort to right some of the mistakes, but some of the others aren't all that hard to fix. But the Big Ten season has begun, so the pressure is on. How will Illinois respond?