Penn State likes, dislikes: Ground game, defensive dominance outweigh quarterback struggles, injury issues in Illinois football’s historic upset

The+Illinois+offensive+line+huddles+during+the+game+against+No.+7+Penn+State+on+Saturday.+The+offensive+line+proved+pivotal+in+the+Illinis+historic+nine-overtime+win+despite+a+few+key+injuries.+

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

The Illinois offensive line huddles during the game against No. 7 Penn State on Saturday. The offensive line proved pivotal in the Illini’s historic nine-overtime win despite a few key injuries.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Words are great. Words are a fundamental piece of life as we know it and are the building blocks we use for communication. But I think words come up short when trying to describe just how tremendous, unexpected and exhausting Illinois’ 20-18 upset win over No. 7 Penn State was this weekend.

I’m back again to talk about what I liked and didn’t like from this week’s game, and with as eventful of a game as it was, there’s a whole lot to break down.

Likes

Offensive line ignores the hate.

It’s the kind of thing that will be lost in the box score, but this week the offensive line stepped up in a major way. The four sacks allowed might not look pretty, but the run blocking was phenomenal and a big part of how Illinois ended the game with 357 rushing yards. 

It’s even more impressive when considering that the o-line found themselves somewhat unintentionally under fire publicly from Bielema earlier this week.

The roster is going to have to change to get to where we want to get to win a championship,” Bielema said. “I recognized that probably halfway through the spring last year, through the summer. Certain positions haven’t played out the way they had envisioned them to, particularly the offensive line. I don’t think we have a player in the two-deep that they’ve recruited in the last two years that is significantly doing anything for us in the playing department, and that is a major concern.”

Bielema came out to rectify that his primary concern was with the number of offensive linemen on the roster rather than the play of the current offensive line. Regardless, the Illinois line found themselves in the headlines this week and responded forcefully in the game. Especially considering Illinois only was able to manage 26 rushing yards against Wisconsin last game, Saturday was the type of performance that can help turn a season around. 

Are Chase Brown and Josh McCray human?

While the line might’ve blocked excellently, Brown and McCray were the ones actually carrying the ball. When Brown had his career-high 257 yards earlier this year against Charlotte, it would have been hard to imagine he would top 200 yards again. Somehow, he found a way to do it, recording 223 yards against what was expected to be a stingy Penn State run defense. 

McCray was no slouch himself, yielding 142 yards from scrimmage. The yardage was great from backs, but the most important thing they did was win the time of possession battle, with Illinois having the ball for 36:25 compared to Penn State’s 23:35. This, in part, allowed the Illini defense to stay rested and effective against an elite Penn State offense.

Defense

I could go all day with superlatives describing the Illinois defense. It did what almost nobody thought it could and held Penn State to just 10 points in regulation and then proceeded to stymie the Nittany Lions throughout the numerous overtime periods. 

Penn State managed just 62 rushing yards. The defense terrorized Penn State starting quarterback Sean Clifford, holding him to 19 of 34 passing for only 165 yards. They kept pressure up on him, yielding four sacks by game’s end. 

Part of the credit here has to go to the offense and specifically the run game. When Illinois played Wisconsin in their last game, they badly lost the time of possession battle, which tired the defense out. Against Penn State, the ground game was incredibly strong and allowed for the defense to stay fresh throughout the game and maintain the energy it needed to withstand nine overtime periods. 

Response to injuries

It probably comes with the territory of going to nine overtimes, but Illinois had three major players go down throughout the game: Vederian Lowe, Chase Brown and Artur Sitkowski. Each time, it would have been easy to imagine a scenario in which Illinois folded the game due to the injuries to key players, but instead the Illini found a way to win with the age-old next-man-up mentality. 

Lowe went down midway through the game, forcing Alex Pihlstrom to step up on the offensive line. Brown and Sitkowski went down at different points during overtime, requiring Illinois to change up its game plan on the fly while struggling to make almost any two-point conversions. 

“There was a key moment when Art was on the ground over there,” said Bielema on Sitkowski’s injury. “Our guys knew that he had been hurt. You could feel a kind of momentum, and I remember I just ran out in the huddle and said, ‘Hey, one play! One play!’ And our coaches started running and made it happen.”

Ultimately, the biggest player that stepped up was probably quarterback Brandon Peters. Peters was benched this week in place of Sitkowski in part because he wasn’t cleared to practice until Tuesday, but when the time came to call his number midway through overtime, he was ready. 

Peters’ entrance was a microcosm of the game as a whole. He came in as a replacement for a player injured due to grueling length of the game and failed on his first few tries, but ultimately found a way to battle through it to succeed, finding Casey Washington in the end zone to win the game in poetic fashion. 

Overtime

Who doesn’t like a sudden death situation? It might’ve taken more than a couple tries, but both teams had different moments where they could have won the game if they had converted. We even got to see Penn State pull out a trick play on their first conversion attempt in the third overtime. There were some close calls, too, like Penn State back Noah Cain being stopped just short of a conversion at the 1-yard line that would have ended the game. Nine overtimes mean there is significant buildup of suspense to the final moment when Illinois got the conversion. 

What I disliked

Overtime?

Nine overtimes also meant the game lasted over four hours. Due to the nature of this being a low-scoring game, it’s no surprise that both teams struggled to get much going in the two-point conversion shootout. Unfortunately, watching teams go back and forth failing to convert doesn’t make for exciting football. 

As primarily a running team, Illinois isn’t really built for overtime, especially when the starting quarterback goes down midway through. The Illini defense had frustrated the Penn State offense all afternoon, so it wasn’t surprising to see them struggle to get much going themselves. 

I think the two-point conversion of overtime gets much more exciting in shootout matchups that happen to be tied after the first two overtime periods. When it’s low scoring, however, the game just isn’t as exciting. 

I am tired of talking about quarterback play.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Illinois’ quarterback play has been unacceptable this year. This week, the usual suspects were back at it again, with Sitkowski going 8/19 for 38 yards and an interception. No, you didn’t read that wrong. Sitkowski had less than 50 passing yards in a game that went to nine overtimes. In all fairness, Sitkowsi got hurt during the fourth overtime. However, in the current two-point conversion shootout format, all attempts past the first two overtime periods are two-point conversions. 

Peters did not start the game and only played in the last handful of overtimes, but he clearly looked shaky out there. Fortunately, he helped the team get those last two conversions, and for that, he deserves some credit. The situation wasn’t an easy one to walk into, and he found a way to take Illinois home regardless of if his play was perfect. 

It’s hard to imagine as the moment is happening, but this could possibly be a high-water mark for Illinois under Bielema. The record might improve in future years in terms of wins, but beating the No. 7 team in the country on the road during their Homecoming isn’t something that happens every day. Even if this game isn’t the apex of his tenure, it’s almost certainly the highest point of this season for Illinois. 

Bielema made it clear after the game that he was already looking full steam ahead at the Rutgers matchup next week, but Illinois fans should savor this moment as upsets like this rarely happen. After all, we won’t keep calling these games upsets if Illinois becomes the favorite. 

 

@WesHollenberg

[email protected]