It must be something about playing Illinois on Halloween that brings out the best in the Penn State football program.
James Franklin’s Nittany Lions shut out the Illini 39-0 at Beaver Stadium Saturday, which just so happened to be Oct. 31. PSU’s last home game that fell on Halloween?
A 27-0 beating of Illinois in 1998.
While this one was never much of a game, the win was important for the current version of the Nittany Lions (now 7-2) for several reasons.
• It ensured a winning record for 2015, meaning PSU has yet to suffer a losing campaign since the NCAA’s since-repealed sanctions hit in 2012.
• At 4-1 in the Big Ten, State has doubled up its conference win total of 2014 and is three games over .500 in the league for the first time since 2012.
• For a team that has been in so many nail-biters in recent years (due in part to the sanctions), the shutout was its first since beating Kent State 34-0 in 2013 and its first over a Big Ten foe since blanking Minnesota 20-0 in 2009. That allowed the staff to get a bunch of second- and third-teamers significant reps late in the game.
Franklin was reluctant to call the win “easy,” but he admitted it was the type of outing the team needed heading into the final three games of the season.
“I’m proud of our guys, we are getting better,” he said. “We didn’t start out the season the way any of us would have liked. A lot of people wanted us to panic — we’re not going to, we are going to stay positive, we’re going to love these kids. We’re going to stick together as a family, we’re going to keep coaching, we’re going to get better. I think that is what we are doing.”
What we’re doing is breaking down the game. Read on for our take on things.
MAN OF THE HOUR: QB Christian Hackenberg continues to get better and better. He hit on 21 of 29 passes for 266 yards and two scores, and even caught a halfback option pass from Nick Scott that went for a 14-yard TD. In the last six games, Hackenberg has 12 TD passes and no interceptions.
CLOSE SECOND: A shout out here to the entire defense, which used a strong across-the-board effort to dominate the Illini. All three levels — starters and reserves — just a great all-around performance.
CLOSE THIRD: RB Saquon Barkley rushed for 84 yards and a score on 20 carries, and also had 58 yards on three catches.
TURNING POINT: Penn State was up 6-0 in the first quarter when LB Troy Reeder picked off Illini QB Wes Lunt and returned it 44 yards to the 6-yard line. Hackenberg threw another alley-oop pass to Geno Lewis for a score on the next play for a 12-0 lead. That was pretty much that.
SOLID STRATEGY: Penn State aired it out, with Hackenberg completing passes to seven different receivers and catching one himself. This mitigated Illinois’ usually potent, run-stuffing defensive line.
NUMBERS GAME: The Lions were 7 of 7 in the red zone — five TDs and two field goals. Illinois never reached the red zone.
BUSINESS AS USUAL: WR Chris Godwin had seven more catches for 76 yards and a score.
SPECIAL DELIVERY: Koa Farmer was back on kickoff return duties and sent a charge through the stadium with a 57-yarder to open the second half. He fielded pretty deep in his own end zone.
WHAT'S UP WITH?
• Penn State suffering a stubbed Big Toe. Inconsistent K Joey Julius was all over the place again, with blocked PATs and (another) kickoff out of bounds. He was replaced by Tyler Davis, who made a pair of field goals and three PATs.
• Even more special teams issues for PSU. Davis also put a kickoff out of bounds. DeAndre Thompkins muffed another punt (Illinois recovered).
• Even MORE special teams issues for PSU. The Lions burned two timeouts (back to back) when they were confused when Illinois appeared to be setting up for a quick kick on the first quarter.
• PSU getting too cute on short-yardage situations early in the game. That included a speed sweep to Brandon Polk on second-and-3 that went for a five-yard loss and Hackenberg being sacked on a second-and-1 after faking a handoff. BTW, Polk had minus-11 yards on three carries Saturday. Think opponents are kind of looking for him?
HIDDEN HERO: WR DaeSean Hamilton had four catches for 49 yards. Three moved the chains and the other set up a second-and-1.
HIDDEN HEROES: The offensive line quietly did a very nice job against Iliinois’ talented defensive front.
EVEN MORE HIDDEN HEROES: PSU’s turf management people did a midseason re-sod of Beaver Stadium and there did not seem to be any issues with the playing surface.
LOST IN THE SHUFFLE: DE Carl Nassib had another sack. With 14.5 on the season, he is one QB drop away from setting a school record. He is now the first PSU player ever to log sacks in nine straight games.
DID YOU NOTICE?
• RT Andrew Nelson was out with a knee injury. He was replaced again by Brendan Mahon. Franklin said he expects Nelson to return for next week’s game at Northwestern.
• Backup DB Christian Campbell was in street clothes due to an undisclosed injury.
• OL Chasz Wright, one of the blockers on placements, was out with an undisclosed injury. Franklin indicated that may have played a role in Julius’ missed PATs.
• TE Adam Breneman did not dress for the second straight game.
UNANSWERED QUESTION: Was this a breakout game for Penn State or just a super dud by the Illini?