Blown opportunities cost Illini a win over Penn State

By Kyle Betts

You know it’s a special game for Illinois when Brent Musburger is in the house. I can’t really explain it, but for some reason I’ve always felt like he wears a little orange underneath his suit whenever he gets to call a game featuring the Fighting Illini of Illinois (as he likes to put it). But on Saturday night in University Park, it was nothing but a Penn State lovefest for Musburger and his booth partner, Kirk Herbstreit.

Like many Illini fans, I didn’t make the trip to Happy Valley and instead had to watch the game on ABC. And as tough as it was to listen to the announcers gush over the greatness of Penn State’s HD offense (I counted at least six different references throughout the game), it was even tougher to watch the Illini blow opportunity after opportunity throughout the game.

First Quarter

Penn State received the ball to start and Benedict Arnold Musburger couldn’t resist the urge to prematurely hype the great Nittany Lion offense.

There’s no doubt Joe Paterno’s offense is putting up some gaudy numbers this season, but they haven’t faced a talented opponent or a tough situation yet. Needless to say, I wasn’t surprised when Illinois brought the blitz early against opposing quarterback Daryll Clark, and the Illini were able to force a punt on the game’s first drive.

Illinois responded with a very nice drive that included a solid balance of run and pass plays, as well as a hilarious attempt by Herbstreit to try to pronounce tight end Michael Hoomanawanui’s last name (which my friend later described as sounding like “Harry Caray trying to announce a Vietnamese boxing match”). Running back Jason Ford completed the drive with the 1-yard touchdown and the White Out suddenly went silent.

Of course, with the home team up against the ropes early and the crowd stunned, Illinois missed its first opportunity by allowing Penn State to easily break containment and score on the ensuing drive. This would be a problem for the Illini defense all night.

Anyway, both teams would score again, and the first quarter would end with a shootout in the making.

End of the first: Tied 14-14.

Second Quarter

Daniel Dufrene was running the ball well to this point and the quarterback draw was taking advantage of an overly aggressive Penn State defensive line. But it would make too much sense to keep using that, right? Instead, Illinois opted to run an option attack that hasn’t worked all season and let an inaccurate Juice Williams throw the ball more. Of course, the result was that the offense stalled (20 yards and zero points throughout the quarter) and Penn State was able to take a lead it would never relinquish.

Despite all of this, the defense was still able to keep the game close for Illinois, as a somewhat boring quarter ended with Penn State holding on to a small lead.

End of the second: Penn State leading 21-14.

Third Quarter

After a quick chili break and a video montage of the first half from OAR (because nothing gets the people pumped like OAR), it was time for some more football and a chance for the Illini to get right back into this thing.

On the opening possession, it was clear Illinois was recommitted to the run and to letting Juice try and win this game with his legs.

Then on fourth and two, from about midfield, Illinois lined up for a quick quarterback sneak and came up well short of the first down (“momentum killer” is exactly what I wrote in my notes).

While I agree that it was a good call to go for it on fourth down at this point in the game, I don’t understand the QB sneak on anything longer than a yard. The coaches missed an opportunity here by not taking their time and setting up a play … like a draw perhaps.

Penn State responded with a field goal and Illinois got one later to stay close. It was now clear the coaching staff knew they were only going to win this game by running the ball (21 total plays in the quarter with 19 being rushes).

End of the third: Penn State leading 24-17.

Fourth Quarter

I have to admit, I was feeling pretty optimistic at this point about Illinois’ chances. They were running the ball well and the defense was holding its own … then Derrick Williams pulled a Jeremy Maclin and returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

Yet again (to perhaps nobody’s surprise), kickoff coverage got overanxious and broke their lane assignments, allowing Williams to basically stroll down the field. I know special teams are usually reserved for players with little experience but not staying in your lane is the ultimate coverage sin.

Although Arrelious Benn would respond with a 54-yard touchdown reception from Juice, there was simply not enough time to get back in this game as the Nittany Lion offense did what it does best: run the ball and kill the clock.

End of the fourth: Penn State wins 38-24.

After I turned off the TV and thought about it for a second, I couldn’t help but think the Illini let this one get away, rather than Penn State proving it was the superior team. Mistakes with the offense, defense, special teams and coaching killed whatever momentum the Illini carried at various points throughout the game.

On Friday, I wrote a column about how Penn State always seems to be a good indicator of how Ron Zook’s Illinois teams will play for the entire season. If that holds true, then we learned that when opportunity knocks for the 2008 Illini, no one is there to answer.

Kyle Betts is a graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]