Penn State vs. Illinois: Game Breakdown

The good, the bad and the extremely ugly from the Nittany Lions’ loss to the Illini.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- In a game against struggling Illinois at a more than half empty Memorial Stadium here Saturday, Penn State finally got the sort of team balance it had been lacking all season.

Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, it was not a matter of positives emerging in all aspects of the game, but rather negatives. The offense was as bad as ever. The special teams had one blunder after another.

And the defense, which had carried the program for most of the season, came unraveled at the worst possible moment.

“Obviously we didn't play well enough in all three phases to get the outcome we wanted,” Nittany Lion coach James Franklin said. Boy, did they not play well enough in all three phases.

It takes some doing to lose to a team as bad as the Illini (5-6, 2-5). But with across-the-board problems, Penn State pulled it off, dropping a 16-14 decision on a late field goal to fall to 6-5 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten.

Here is some of what went right and a lot of what went wrong.

MAN OF THE HOUR

RB Akeel Lynch carried a career-high 28 times for 137 yards and a score. But on this day, nobody was perfect for the Lions. He also lost a fumble (more on this later).

CLOSE SECOND

LB Mike Hull had 10 more tackles.

CLOSE THIRD

S Marcus Allen had nine tackles and several big hits. But he was part of a secondary that struggled late in the game.

TURNING POINT

Up 7-0 early, Penn State had a second-and-4 at the Illini 5-yard line. It turned into a fourth-and-2 from the 3. The drive ended with H Chris Gulla bobbling the snap on a field goal attempt, so instead of delivering an early knockout punch with a double-digit lead the Lions allowed Illinois to stay alive.

SOLID STRATEGY

Illini coach Tim Beckman did not allow either of his QBs to take a lot of chances. As a result, the Illini won the turnover battle, 1-0, which was key against the aggressive Lion defense.

NUMBERS GAME

QB Christian Hackenberg threw only 16 passes, completing 8 for a season-low 93 yards. He has not completed a pass longer than 33 yards since the Northwestern game.

BUSINESS AS USUAL

The PSU offensive line gave up two more sacks. That's 39 on the season, ladies and gentlemen. Ouch.

SPECIAL DELIVERY

o DE Brad Bars took a direct snap as the up man in punt formation and ran 32 yards for a first down and to set up PSU at the Illini 22. Unfortunately for the Lions, it led to the first special teams blunder listed below.

WHAT'S UP WITH?

• The special teams issues that hurt the Lions in the first half. Gulla ham-handed the snap that cost K Sam Ficken a 20-yard chip shot attempt. In the second quarter, an offside penalty on Evan Schwan on an Illini punt gave Illinois a first down on what would become its only scoring drive of the half. Those sorts of gaffes are magnified when the offense is struggling, which sure turned out to be the case Saturday.

• The special teams issue that hurt the Lions in the second half. For some reason, nobody fielded Taylor Zalewski's short kickoff into the wind to open the third period, and the Illini recovered at the PSU 28. They turned it into a 28-yard David Reisner field goal and a 10-7 lead.

• The Penn State defense, so stout all season, allowing Illinois to go 54 yards in seven plays to get Reisner's 36-yard game-winner. The defense played soft early in the drive, allowing backup QB Reilly O'Toole to complete back-to-back passes of 25 and 17 yards. Then it allowed Josh Ferguson to break off a 16-yard run.

• The poor tackling by the defense late in the game. We get that this group is probably tired. But that's no excuse for NOT wrapping up.

• A Penn State RB losing a fumble for the second straight week, this time with Lynch giving the ball away. Through nine games, the Lion backs had zero fumbles. The second-quarter error did not lead to any Illini points, but flipped field position in a game where it was critical.

• PSU averaging 2.9 yards per carry in the first half against the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten. Take away Bars' 32-yarder and the average dropped to 1.7 yards.

• TE Kyle Carter continuing to drop passes. Things sure have changed from his redshirt freshman season of 2012.

HIT SQUAD

Hull lit up WR Malik Turner following an eight-yard catch in the fourth quarter.

HIDDEN HERO

There were none for the Lions in this game.

LOST IN THE SHUFFLE

Penn State limited Illinois to 68 rushing yards on 27 carries.

DID YOU NOTICE?

• LB Brandon Bell was on the trip but not in uniform due to an undisclosed injury. He was replaced in the starting lineup by true freshman Jason Cabinda, who made five tackles.

• That LB Nyeem Wartman actually moved from strong to weak side, where Bell usually plays. And Cabinda played on the strong side.

• RB Bill Belton got six early carries but spent the rest of the game on the bench with an apparent arm injury.

• CB Trevor Williams was back in the starting lineup after missing the Temple game with what was believed to be a concussion. He had two stops and broke up a pass.

• That backup CB Christian Campbell left the game with what appeared to be a shoulder injury in the first half. He was in street clothes with an arm in a sling in the second half.

• S Ryan Keiser, who returned to Penn State earlier in the week after being hospitalized due to serious complications arising from a broken rib, did not make the trip to Champaign.

UNANSWERED QUESTION

Did Penn State get a little too full of itself after reaching bowl eligibility with a win over Temple?


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