Wes Lunt came into the game as the starting quarterback, but took a backseat to Reilly O’Toole late in the second quarter. More on Lunt later on, but Illinois won this game because of some key performances by guys who otherwise this year have been somewhat quiet. O’Toole started in Lunt’s absence earlier in the season, but the senior QB came up big when his team needed him in his last game in Memorial Stadium as an Illini. O’Toole wasn’t the only senior to make clutch plays. O’Toole found fellow senior Matt LaCosse for the Illini’s lone touchdown of the game on his first drive late in the second quarter. Donovonn Young probably had his best showing of the year, running forward with power and finding the gaps to get the tough yards. Those three haven’t been in the spotlight much this year, but they sure stole it Saturday.
That “Dude” Can Play:
I’m really starting to run out of ways to describe how good Mike Dudek has been this season. The Illinois freshman, who most schools thought was “too small” to play FBS football, has proven just about every doubter wrong with an impeccable rookie season. Dudek added 11 catches for 115 yards on Saturday to a stellar statistical year in which he has led the team in receptions and receiving yards. What makes it even more impressive is that Dudek has been productive no matter who has been at quarterback. 62 receptions for 902 yards with one more game to go is undeniable. And with one more game left at Northwestern, Dudek has the opportunity to cross the 1,000 yard mark and continue to set the freshman receiving record bar higher and higher.
A Shot at Redemption:
It probably wasn’t a fair ask, but putting sophomore walk-on David Reisner on the field to try a 50-yard field goal when his previous long was 26 yards was iffy at best. Reisner had enough leg on the kick, but pulled it wide left. That kick, at a crucial point in the second half, left Penn State with the lead. But Reisner went back to the sideline and, for much of the late 4th quarter, booted kick after kick into the practice net, hoping for a second chance at putting one through the uprights. And with 13 seconds left in the game, he got that chance. Reisner, who has more or less earned the placekicking duties this season after the rest of the unit has struggled, trotted out for a 36 yard attempt. And this time, he was true. Amid all of the inconsistency and struggles of the kickers, Reisner went out in a big time, pressure situation and drilled a field goal for the win.
Defense.. Wait, Defense?:
Usually the Illinois defense ends up in one of the latter sections of this report, but on Saturday, they came to play. No matter how dismal the Penn State offense has been this season, the Illinois defense did what it had to, especially when the Illini offense put them back on the field. Even with Penn State’s offensive line back at full strength, the defensive line was able to limit run plays for the most part and actually got to Christian Hackenberg enough to disrupt his play. One player on the Illinois defensive front in particular who has come a long way this season is Jihad Ward. At the beginning of the year, Ward struggled to get off blocks and was essentially taken out of the game, but now that Ward’s technique is catching up to his athleticism, he’s having the impact that was expected of him when he arrived. Ward had 2 TFL including a sack for 11 yards. He’s up to 3 sacks on the season now, but his play as of late has the needle pointing up for him moving forward.
Backed Into a Corner:
The Illinois cornerbacks started the season off relatively well, but as of late their play hasn’t been as solid as before. Add in an apparent knee injury on Saturday to number one corner V’Angelo Bentley and the Illinois corners are thinning and struggling at the same time. Fortunately for that group, Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian likely won’t be available for next Saturday’s matchup in Evanston. But for a group that has struggled as of late, a strong showing in an all-important matchup for a possible bowl would be ideal, to say the least.
Get a Grip:
The Illini were fortunate that it didn’t affect the outcome of the game against Penn State, but outside of Dudek, the Illini receivers have been uncharacteristically dropping a lot of pretty routine passes over the last couple of weeks. Some of that just comes down to concentration, but for whatever reason, the receivers haven’t been as locked in, and if they don’t clean that up, it could cost them against Northwestern. Justin Hardee has had some drops in the last couple games, and against Penn State, Malik Turner had a critical drop on a pass that would have converted a third down. Hopefully the group bounces back, but I think it goes without saying “thank goodness for Mike Dudek” is all too true.
Lunt & Punt:
Considering the start he had to the season, Wes Lunt looked poised to air it out at will most of the season, but after the Iowa loss and a sloppy first half against Penn State, Lunt was pulled in favor of O’Toole. At times in the first half Saturday, I actually said “what is he thinking?” out loud when watching the game. Lunt’s decision making was suspect, and he made some bad reads. In his defense, the offensive line isn’t the same as it was at the start of the season, but that doesn’t change how Lunt is going through his progressions. He rarely found, or even looked at, the team’s leading receiver in Dudek, and seemed to force a lot of throws. Lunt has been better this year, but as of late he just isn’t playing at the elite level that everyone expected him to. And from a scheme standpoint, O’Toole was probably the better matchup against the last three opponents based on their weaknesses and the deficiencies in the Illinois offensive line. Lunt will bounce back, and there’s no questioning his arm, but his lack of mobility and decision making had him on the sidelines watching his backup lead the team to the win.
Winning & Losing:
While Illinois got the win on Saturday, some major questions loom off the field, one in specific being the absence of senior left tackle Simon Cvijanovic, who not only missed senior day, but also is listed as “out for the season” for what Beckman described as “personal issues”. Cvijanovic was one of the four players brought to Big Ten Media Day before the season because he was part of what Beckman deemed as his core leadership group. It’s not really clear what kind of “personal issues” Cvijanovic is dealing with, but the timing of it all is very strange. Another notable absence was running back Josh Ferguson, who didn’t take a snap in the game until essentially an entire quarter had elapsed. Ferguson’s benching wasn’t due to injury, as he later entered the game, but was described as a “coach’s decision”. By no means do I want to insinuate that Beckman is losing the locker room, especially after a team win like yesterday, but when two of the team’s leaders miss time for vague reasons, it makes you wonder what is going on within the team.