Column: Illinois improving

By Troy Murray

The scoreboard might not show it, but this Illinois football team is improving. Just ask Penn State’s legendary football coach Joe Paterno, who notched his 359th win on Saturday against the Illini.

“Illinois is a good team,” Paterno said on the field in an interview with ESPN immediately after the game at Beaver Stadium. “They should have beaten us. We were fortunate to win.”

This was not another supposedly easy win. Make no mistake about it, Illinois did not face a bad Penn State football team. Just last year the Nittany Lions were competing for a chance at the national title. Sure, the team’s talent has dropped off a bit since star quarterback Michael Robinson graduated, but Penn State is still among the top-tier teams in the Big Ten. Its only three losses have come against Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame.

Bookmakers in Las Vegas were giving Illinois two touchdowns and a field goal. Experts across the country thought Saturday’s game would be similar to the Nittany Lions’ 63-10 trouncing of Illinois last year. This was far from the case – and it could mean good things to come for the Illinois football program.

The final score, 26-12, fails to do the game justice. If not for Penn State’s safety with 1:20 left to go in the game and its 29-yard return for a touchdown on the ensuing on-side kick, Illinois would have held Penn State to just 17 points, seven points below its season average, and it would have been a five-point game.

Juice Williams struggled, going 13-for-33 for 156 yards, no scores and four turnovers. How can Williams be expected to perform to the best of his ability when defenders hurry him all day and his receivers routinely drop passes that are delivered to their numbers? Even Mr. Dependable, Kyle Hudson, dropped an easy one. The offensive line allowed six sacks Saturday while protecting one of the Big Ten’s most mobile quarterbacks – a number that needs to drastically decrease if Illinois hopes to turn competitive games into wins.

Rashard Mendenhall finally broke a big run in the second quarter when he galloped 79 yards, setting up Jason Reda for one of his four field goals on the day. It’s always a good sign when Mendenhall gets involved in the game. After gaining 94 yards against Ohio last weekend and another 164 against Penn State, maybe Illini head coach Ron Zook has finally realized Mendenhall should be his primary back.

Illinois held the Penn State offense to just 10 points – yet another impressive defensive performance by the Illini. Through its first seven games, Penn State averaged 162 yards on the ground and 213 yards in the air. On Saturday, PSU managed only 184 yards of total offense. Illinois held the Nittany Lions’ running game to just 40 yards.

Last year, both Penn State and Michigan State scored more than 60 points in huge wins against the Illini. This season, Illinois is 1-1 against the two teams, neither of which scored more than 26 points. Thus far Illinois has decreased its points-allowed average by 15 from last season. Soon Joe Paterno won’t be wiping his brow in relief after a close win against Illinois.

Troy Murray is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]