Offense Fails to Cash in Opportunities

CHAMPAIGN - The final play of Illinois' 35-7 loss to Penn State summed up the day's struggles perfectly.

One yard from the end zone, tailback Donovonn Young couldn't get in, stopped by Penn State defenders as time expired. A touchdown would have been meaningless in a game so far out of reach, but the play offered another example of the Nittany Lions holding the Illini, of denying quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and Company from keeping up on the scoreboard.

"We had our opportunities," Scheelhaase noted following the game.

It's true. While Penn State dominated the scoreboard in the first half, the two teams were separated by only 20 yards gained on offense.

The difference? Penn State scored touchdowns. Illinois did not. Down 14-0 in the first quarter, Young broke a 52-yard run, setting up a chance to score inside the 10-yard line.

The next three plays amounted to only three yards, and kicker Taylor Zalewski pushed a short field goal right.

"That hurt," said co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty. "You sit back and now it's 14-7 if you punch that in, it's a different game. Instead you miss a field goal and that puts it to where now they go and you're in trouble."

To come away with no points in that situation left the offense frustrated, but the team was still in the game.

Two drives later and still trailing by two scores, the Illini put together a respectable drive. Marching into Penn State territory, the offense faced a fourth-and-one at the 28. Scheelhaase took the snap, tucked the ball and pushed forward -- stopped inches from the first down marker.

Eight plays and a little over three minutes later, Penn State scored again.

"Before you know it, the game has changed," Beatty said.

And yet, more first half frustration was to come.

With time dwindling in the second quarter, Scheelhaase guided the offense down inside the Penn State 10, thanks to throws of 22 and five yards to Ryan Lankford.

From there, the drive stalled, and instead of attempting another field goal, coach Tim Beckman gambled on fourth down. It didn't pay off, as Scheelhaase was intercepted by linebacker Michael Mauti, with the return nearly leading to more Nittany Lions points.

"That hurt because we had a good drive going," Lankford said. "Typically what happens when you get a good drive going like that guys are amped up, guys are fired up, ready to punch the ball in. When you don't, it's that mental thing (that hurts). It's something that has to stop."

That play essentially ended any chance for Illinois victory and was the most glaring example of the troubling trend.

In the first half, the offense totaled 187 yards and seven first downs, had driven inside the 10 twice and yet had no points to show for the effort.

"We've got to finish," Scheelhaase said. "We've got to execute. We've got to make plays when it counts because the opportunities were there. The plays were there to be made, we just didn't make them."

It took a third quarter trick play -- a halfback pass from Josh Ferguson to Spencer Harris -- for Illinois to finally reach the end zone.

As for the other five drives of the half: three punts, an interception and that final play, the symbolic stop on the one to end the game.

When it was over, a frustrated tone in offensive lineman Graham Pocic's voice was evident.

"When you go out there and don't execute it's frustrating," he said. "All of us, we've got to look ourselves in the mirror. We've got to get it fixed. We've got to get it fixed."

Things won't get any easier, not with a trip to Camp Randall to play Wisconsin next week.

Ball security was the lesson learned in the loss to Louisiana Tech, when six turnovers did the offense in. Saturday, taking advantage of opportunities was the takeaway.

Said Scheelhaase: "We've just got to do a good job of making that play when it's there because at the end of the game when you look back it never feels good when you're like, 'Man I should have made this play. It could have made a difference in the game.' That's always a bad feeling. We've just got to make sure we're ready for that play when it comes."


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