Illinois played better this week. At times, it appeared to get its offense untracked and began to visualize winning games. Unfortunately, mistakes continued to haunt the Illini. Head coach Ron Zook sounded like a broken record in the post game press conference.
"There's not a whole lot I can say. At times we did play fairly well. To be a good football team, you've got to play that way 60 minutes. Again, we didn't play the way we're capable of playing."
Senior quarterback Juice Williams became Illinois' all-time total offense leader in this contest, but no one was celebrating the feat. Zook recognized the paradox of having a quarterback with a special record who still plays inconsistently.
"I don't think anyone feels worse about it than Juice. My congratulations to him, he is the total offense leader. But he would turn all those yards back in for an opportunity to play the way we all know he can play.,/P>
"I thought he threw some nice balls, and I thought he did a good job running the ball. But once again there were some things we didn't get connected."
Zook even considered removing Williams in the fourth quarter in favor either of Eddie McGee or Jacob Charest. But his reasoning for keeping him in the game proved prophetic as Williams used a two-minute offense to drive for two touchdowns to make the score respectable.
"The reason I kept Juice in there, to be honest with you, is I wanted to see if he could play himself out of it. And he did some nice things."
Williams wouldn't mind using the two-minute offense all the time.
"It's less thinking. You don't really give yourself time to think about why this happened or why that happened. Any offense in that type of mode tends to do better."
While it was too little too late for the Penn State game, Williams realizes the fourth quarter success could serve as a springboard for the future.
"It was something to build on. We put up a couple touchdowns at the end of the game, and it really gives us confidence going into next week. Now we know we can be productive and sustain drives. I think it'll help out a lot."
Offensive guard Jon Asamoah seconded those thoughts.
"I saw some things. It reminded me that we can do it, we can move the ball. We're a good offense. We've got to stop killing ourselves. We have penalties, negative plays, guys with missed assignments at the wrong time. So that gave me so much confidence.
"We were just out there moving, there was no thinking, it was just go at top speed. We've just have to go out there playing with no thinking, execute your jobs and go right at it. We've got to figure out how to make it like that."
The opening quarter appeared to feature two evenly matched teams. In fact, the Illini outgained PSU 84 to 40 in that quarter. A strong Southwest wind, combined with cool conditions and occasional mist, contributed to a sluggish first quarter for both teams.
Illinois continued to show promise defensively on the Nittany Lions' first drive of the second quarter, until running back Stephfon Green exploded through a big hole to score from 52 yards out.
The Illini came right back with a promising drive of their own. The big play was a 49 yard pass play to Arrelious Benn, who fought off the tackle of PSU linebacker Josh Hull trying to score. That was the play that gave Williams the record. The drive stalled four yards from paydirt, so Matt Eller booted a field goal to make the score 7-3 Penn State.
PSU kept the ball for ten plays before the Illini forced a punt that was downed on their own one yard line. Twenty yard passes to Chris Duvalt and Benn plus 10 yards to A.J. Jenkins and another 15 to Benn kept the drive alive.
On second and ten at the PSU 23 yard line, Williams was rushed too hard for an escape. Trying to make a play, he threw the ball away as he was being tackled and was called for intentional grounding. The ensuing 15 yard penalty took them out of field goal range, preventing a momentum surge for halftime.
Penn State was driving to begin the second half when receiver Derek Moye was stripped of the ball and Evan Frierson fell on it. Unfortunately, right tackle Ryan Palmer was whistled for holding on the Illini's second play, preventing them from taking advantage of their opportunity.
From then until the latter part of the fourth quarter, it was all Penn State. With momentum strongly on their side, they ran up and down the field on the Illini. It was still 14-3 at the end of the third quarter, but PSU scored on the second play of the fourth quarter to make it 21-3.
With the wind now helping them as well, they ate up hugh chunks of yardage and tacked on two more touchdowns. The Illinois offense had become stagnant with a conservative style, and PSU was able to keep the Illini defense on the field far too long. The demoralized UI defense was no match for the efficient Nittany Lions at this point.
Finally, the Illini offense began to play with a sense of urgency. Williams completed his first touchdown of the year, an 11 yarder to Jarred Fayson, and he later added a 3 yard option run for a TD to make the final score 35-17.
The defense can be blamed for falling apart at the end, but the offense needed to sustain drives and didn't. Afterward, Zook said he may need to reconsider his substitution pattern for the defense.
"I don't know if it's fatigue as much as emotion. They have to stay high. We're in good shape, we're strong. We probably need to play more guys. Something we're gonna talk about doing next week is I want more guys in there early so fatigue doesn't become a factor.
"As a coach, you get concerned when you have young guys as backups. You worry about it being a big game and they go in there and make mistakes. But what ultimately happens, they get tired, they get fatigued, and then you get big plays anyway. So we want to play the young guys early and get them ready to go."
Williams finished 20-36 passing for 263 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He ran 20 times for 58 net yards counting three sacks. Daniel Dufrene gained 57 yards in 11 carries as the primary ball carrier. Benn caught 5 passes for 96 yards. Nine Illini caught passes, with Dufrene adding 32 in four receptions and Chris Duvalt 46 in three grabs.
Penn State outgained the Illini 513 to 393 in total offense, with 338 of their yards on the ground. Green and Evan Royster both topped the century mark, and quarterback Daryll Clark come close with 83 yards. He also completed 17 of 25 passes for 175 yards.
Defensively, Donsay Hardeman led the Illini with 10 tackles, followed by Garrett Edwards and Ian Thomas with 8 each. There were no sacks and only one tackle for loss, by Clay Nurse. Hull led the Nittany Lions with 11 tackles.
The Illini also endured several injuries. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui left with a sprained ankle and was still limping at the end of the game. So was Corey Liuget. Hoomanawanui is questionable for next week. Edwards had an x-ray of his shoulder, but Zook hoped it wasn't serious. Benn, Evan Frierson and Tavon Wilson all got banged up but are expected to recover quickly.
Illinois could now be vulnerable to a team collapse. When doubts creep in and success is missing, some teams begin questioning each other. If that happens with the Illini, their high hopes for the season could be at an end. However, Zook doesn't believe that is in the cards.
"Sure, there could be some splintering. Like I told them, 'You find out what life's all about now. Now you're down, you're getting beat up, people are attacking you. You're gonna find out what type of person you are. Some of you may fall by the wayside.'
"I don't think they will, but they could. This is an ideal time for those kind of things to happen. I think it will be a test of what type of team, what type of people we really are."
Williams spoke with confidence on that subject.
"I don't think it will be a problem at all. That's something we established early in the summer. We made a pact that whatever happens, we're gonna stay together. We're gonna be a team. We're always gonna be one unit."
Regardless, Zook and his coaching staff have a tough job ahead of them, preparing not only for Michigan State next weekend but the rest of the schedule.
"There were a lot of good things. But when you play a team of this caliber, you've got to play 60 minutes. All the good plays are forgotten. People think about the bad plays. They've done it before, and they can do it. It's our job as a coaching staff to get them doing it."