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Press Box Bundle: Illinois vs. No. 10 Penn State

Illinois+wide+receiver+Ricky+Smalling+%28left%29+celebrates+with+wide+receiver+Trenard+Davis+%28right%29+after+scoring+a+touchdown+during+the+game+against+Penn+State+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Friday.+The+Illini+lost+63-24.
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Press Box Bundle: Illinois vs. No. 10 Penn State

Illinois wide receiver Ricky Smalling (left) celebrates with wide receiver Trenard Davis (right) after scoring a touchdown during the game against Penn State at Memorial Stadium on Friday. The Illini lost 63-24.

Illinois wide receiver Ricky Smalling (left) celebrates with wide receiver Trenard Davis (right) after scoring a touchdown during the game against Penn State at Memorial Stadium on Friday. The Illini lost 63-24.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois wide receiver Ricky Smalling (left) celebrates with wide receiver Trenard Davis (right) after scoring a touchdown during the game against Penn State at Memorial Stadium on Friday. The Illini lost 63-24.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois wide receiver Ricky Smalling (left) celebrates with wide receiver Trenard Davis (right) after scoring a touchdown during the game against Penn State at Memorial Stadium on Friday. The Illini lost 63-24.

By Eli Schuster, Sports Editor

The Daily Illini Game Day Podcast:

Video Recap:

First half observations:

In a game against the No. 10 team in the country, you have to take advantage of every opportunity you can get. Stanley Green forcing a fumble on the opening drive for Penn State could have almost redeemed himself for the several blown coverage moments that he had in the weeks prior. However, while the hard hit to force the loose ball gave flashbacks of a once prime Lovie-Smith-style defense, the offense couldn’t get anything going to capitalize on the opportunity.

A deep ball on 3rd and 3 made us question what kind of play-calling we would see from Rod Smith in the game. After a rare missed Chase McLaughlin field goal (let’s be honest, Illini fans can’t be mad at the guy), Penn State missed a field goal of its own, and a glimmer of hope began to shine in Illinois.

Rod Smith couldn’t hold back in this game, and he went with what works best. Mike Epstein dominated the Illini’s first scoring drive. A lot of credit is due to the offensive line, who was able to create holes against a Penn State defensive line that is full of, for a lack of better words, grown men.

Penn State eventually found themselves with a 14-7 lead, partially thanks to a suspect pass interference call against Illinois. Defensive back Sydney Brown was tailing behind the Nittany Lions KJ Hamler and barely laid a finger on the man. To be honest, it’s the Penn State Big Ten bias coming into play. The call sucked the life from the stadium and an easy three-and-out followed for Illinois on its next drive. Penn State carries the momentum to grab a 21-7 lead.

The Illini offense was able to regain its composure, and this time relied on running back Reggie Corbin to get their scoring drive started. For, literally, a couple seconds the Illini had a touchdown grabbed away from them as one of the oddest fumble plays I’ve ever seen took place. Here this describes it best below:

Fortunately, it gave Illinois the boost it needed to grab another touchdown. In addition, the defense must have fed off the energy as well, forcing Penn State to punt and then intercepting Trace McSorley toward the end of the half. Delano Ware’s read of McSorley’s throw was the best yet from the freshman and it helped set up a Chase McLaughlin field goal to end the half with Illinois in striking distance 21-17.

Second half observations:

It didn’t take long for the Illini to find their way into the end zone. Rod Smith’s genius came to light with a perfect trick play that allowed former-quarterback turned wide receiver Trenard Davis to throw a touchdown in hands of a wide-open Ricky Smalling.

The play marks one of the best-executed plays we have seen from Illinois in an incredibly long time. Not only did the call put points on the board, but it did so in style. Quickly, the play was finding itself all over Twitter and the new 24-21 Illini lead felt like one of the most unlikely moments.

Then Miles Sanders happened.

Illinois’ secondary did a decent job containing McSorley. The defense forced Penn State to go to the ground, but that was absolutely no problem. Sanders made Illinois’ defensive line look silly.

A clear key to this game for the Illini was to put pressure on McSorley and contain the run, all possible through the tough defensive line play. However, apparently, only Bobby Roundtree looked at the Penn State scouting report. A 48-yard touchdown run felt like the beginning of the end.

And it was truly only the beginning.

The fourth quarter provided one of the most abysmal performances a football fan may ever see. In a matter of minutes, Penn State changed a 28-24 game to a 42-24 game. The secondary could only hold up for so long and McSorley found his groove. Two quick passing touchdowns was followed up by a 61-yard rushing touchdown by Ricky Slade.

The stadium cleared out faster than any I’ve seen before, and rightfully so. The team went on to hand Penn State five touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone and give up 387 rushing yards accompanied by six total rushing touchdowns on the day.

Closing thoughts:

After the USF game, it wasn’t worth taking any moral victories. However, after a game against the No. 10 team in the country where Illinois hung around for three quarters, it is worth taking some.

M.J. Rivers composed himself on the national stage against a top-ranked team. His game continued to look smart and he made the plays necessary to keep the team in the running for an upset-bid. It appears that with each and every game Rivers takes another step forward, as does the rest of the offense.

The ability of Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin could be one of the most threatening in the big ten. Corbin demonstrated his ability to shake tackles and cut quickly, while Epstein’s sheer power and ability to always gain the extra yards while falling to the ground.

Compare that to the defense, and the same can’t be said. While the team has been able to step up to match the intensity of some top-notch FBS talent, the defense hasn’t been able to put together a complete game. The turnovers and batted down passes have been promising to see, but if a defense allows five touchdowns in one quarter, it becomes really hard to walk away with any positives.

The game felt like one where the Illini took two steps forward to start but then one back at the end. If the past two weeks tell anything about the future of this team, it’s that they should be able to compete with their Big Ten foes in the upcoming weeks. The question now remains whether or not they can hand them a loss.

Photos of the game:

The game as told by Twitter:

@Schuster_Elias

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