Illini Fight Nittany Lions to the Bitter End

The Fighting Illini football team fought the mighty Penn State Nittany Lions to the bitter end at their Homecoming Saturday. It was one more heartbreaking loss in a season marred by losses, but it was a sign of definite progress for the team. Illinisports talks about both the imperfections and the improvements in this report.

The Fighting Illini football team made a lasting impression on the Penn State Nittany Lions despite losing by a 26-12 score in Happy Valley Saturday. The game was much closer than the score indicates. Coach Zook says he doesn't believe in moral victories, but this game should definitely fall into that category. And legendary coach Joe Paterno even said Illinois deserved to win the game.

Penn State was noticeably flat after expending so much emotion the previous week against Michigan. And quarterback Anthony Morelli was likely less efficient due to a concussion the previous week and reduced practice time to prepare for Illinois. But Illinois' defense made the Nittany Lions earn everything it got on this day, holding them far below their offensive average. The defense played extremely well and deserved a better fate.

Unfortunately, crucial offensive mistakes led to the downfall. Freshman quarterback Juice Williams threw two interceptions and fumbled twice, with one of the fumbles leading to a gift 6 yard Tony Hunt recovery and return for touchdown. If it weren't for the fumble return plus a safety and subsequent 29 yard return of an onsides kick attempt at the end of the game, the Illini would have won 12-10.

Penn State has a dominant defense, but Illinois devised an offensive strategy to get runners to the outside quickly. Starting the faster Rashard Mendenhall, Juice combined his own runs with option pitches to Mendenhall for good gains. Mendenhall travelled 79 yards on one run but was held out of the endzone by ultra speedy cornerback Justin King ten yards short of the goal. Overall, Illinois racked up 202 rushing yards, far more than PSU normally allows, and their total offensive yardage almost doubled their opponent.

Unfortunately for Illinois, Penn State stiffened when the Illini neared the red zone, forcing them to settle for four Jason Reda field goals rather than earn touchdowns. With Illinois having trouble getting into the endzone, it was imperative to make no mistakes. But the turnover differential was too much to overcome.

Penn State defenders were far more fired up in the second half, and they were able to pressure Juice into six sacks, errant passes and passes that were fired with too much velocity, similar to what happened at Rutgers. Juice went a long time in the second half with no pass completions and no third down conversions, and this was largely due to a tremendous PSU defensive line that broke down Illini offensive linemen repeatedly on obvious passing downs. Of course, several of Juice's bullets were dropped, a continuing problem. But much credit must go to PSU for the pressure they applied to Illinois' young quarterback.

Illinois wanted to enter halftime with a lead, so they chose not to call timeouts to give Juice a chance to lead his team down the field for a last second score. The theory is that a young quarterback might throw an interception or make some other mistake that might lead to a score reversal, and any lead at halftime is preferable. For those fans who doubted the decision to call no timeouts, Juice's problems in the second half should have demonstrated the reasoning for the decision.

Juice Williams will someday be a star quarterback. But he became somewhat shell-shocked from Penn State's defensive intensity. His turnovers and mistakes were costly but highly predictable. It is simply asking too much for a raw freshman to make the reads and plays a seasoned veteran might make in the same circumstance. He has not yet even mastered the entire playbook, limiting coaching options. And he needs more practice time to learn to find open receivers in the face of an all-out pass rush. This will happen eventually, but Illinois will always be inconsistent on offense until he comes of age.

Field position again played a big roll in the outcome as the PSU punter was named the ESPN Player Of The Game for his long punts, some of which pinned the Illini deep in their own territory. Forcing Juice to make passing plays out of his own endzone was conducive to the Nittany Lions' game plan, and he accommodated them by struggling under that pressure.

Juice Williams is a deep-feeling individual, and it is likely he is taking this loss hard. But he is also a strong-willed person. It is our sincere hope he uses this experience to make himself stronger and better in the future. But if he lets the memory of his mistakes plus the pain from all the hard tackles he endured dominate his thinking, he may have trouble generating the confidence to go out the next few weeks and play well. Since Illinois will now be facing Wisconsin and Ohio State back to back, two teams with defenses arguably better than Penn State, Juice and his teammates will need to muster all the confidence they can generate and forget any negative memories.

From this angle, Illinois did many things right Saturday. The defense continues to fight hard and show improvement, slowing down Penn State's strong running game and keeping their speedy receivers in front of them. They are light years ahead of last year and are still quite young. They are beginning to put the "fight" back into Fighting Illini.

The special teams are still struggling at times, but Reda was 4-4 on field goals and punter Kyle Yelton averaged 42.2 yards per punt. Yelton is definitely improving and gaining confidence. Of course, his best punt was deep into the end zone when he only needed a pooch kick to get better field position for his team.

As is typical of youngsters, he relaxed on the long kick because he didn't want to hit it too hard, and his results were much better. He suffers when he tries too hard, so he must learn to relax better on all his punts. But he is a freshman and has not yet learned this. His experience is typical for freshmen and demonstrates the difficulty trying to win with youth.

The offense also did some good things, especially with their running game. The offensive line did some excellent run blocking, and Illini runners performed admirably. But Penn State has mobile defensive linemen who could not be deterred on obvious passing downs.

While it was disheartening to see all the struggles of the Illini offensive line on such plays, it is also true that Juice needs to make quicker decisions and find the open spot on the field prior to getting hit. And it is essential his receivers catch his throws when they are on target. Illinois is still not good enough to beat a talented opponent when it makes mistakes.

We said last week there is light at the end of the tunnel. Saturday showed that light is getting stronger and brighter. But Illinois experienced a dominant team getting its act together when it was most needed to pull out a close game despite not playing its best. In this case, it was just enough to beat Illinois but not enough to scare them. That is a good sign and bodes well for the future. Perhaps next year, the Illini will be in that position once in awhile. Until then, they will have to play error-free ball and get some breaks to beat a top team.

The biggest concern now is next week. For the third week in a row, the Illini lost a close game where they expended much energy and still came up just short of victory. It is difficult to keep strugging mightily each week only to see your hopes smashed at the end. But it is part of the growth process. We hope the Illini are resilient and continue to play their best game after game. If they can learn to play hard every week despite the odds against them, that experience will teach them the importance of never giving up hope and help them win the close games in the future.

Illini fans are frustrated with the losses, but they are also excited about the possibilities for the future. The Fighting Illini do have a promising future. If we can just be patient a little longer, we will see big wins just as we are now seeing painful losses.

Go Illini!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com


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