Well, I guess now we know why Tim Beckman was so eager to vulture Penn State's roster: The guys he has just aren't very good.
Sure, you could tell this one meant a lot to Penn State, and to Michael Mauti, especially. From the early devastating hit he laid on an Illinois punt returner to his 99-yard interception return at the end of the first half to his sack off the edge of Nathan Scheelhaase to his second interception at the end of the third quarter, to, well...let's just say Mike Mauti was at his Mike Mautiest, and I pity the offense that lines up opposite him.
But you don't want to overstate the importance of emotion and understate the talent differential between Penn State and Illinois. The fact of the matter is, this is a pretty darn good Nittany Lions team, and they just beat up on a team destined for the basement of the Big Ten. Sure, it feels great to put Tim Beckman in his place, but, Vegas line be damned, this wasn't a particularly impressive win.
Penn State played sloppy football, missed opportunities, and benefitted greatly from the Illini's inability to get out of their own way. After a three-and-out on the Lions' opening drive, Illinois muffed the ensuing punt, then after a Sam Ficken field goal, he was roughed. Penn State went up 7-0, but they didn't really deserve it.
That felt like the story of the first half: Illinois would screw up--say, by missing a 26 yard field goal--and Penn State would perfunctorily take advantage. That it was only 21-0 at the break felt like a let down--McGloin was shaky, Ficken at his Fickenest, but Penn State had built up a big enough lead, fueled by the emergence of a suddenly solid running game, that you couldn't really feel justified in complaining.
That unjustified perturbation continued throughout the second half, reaching a crescendo when Illinois used a trick running back pass play to score its only touchdown, and dying down only as the clock winded down to reveal a 28-point blowout victory.
And you know what? Maybe that's a good thing. Given the way Penn State's rolled the last three weeks, the weakness of the Big Ten, and, yes, the fact remains that the Lions should be 5-0 and on the road to something incredibly special rather than just 3-2, it's not hard to get ahead of ourselves. Ted Roof's defense has made unbelievable strides since its horrendous start--Illinois converted just one of twelve third downs against the first-team defense! The offense is continuing to gel--and now they've got a running back! But there were enough faults to give Bill O'Brien and crew a headache, and this team will have plenty to build on moving forward.
The first test of the Big Ten schedule comes next week, homecoming, when the Lions take on the undefeated Wildcats of Northwestern, and Penn State's had a lot of trouble with less talented Northwestern squads in past seasons. They'll have play better than they did today to advance to 2-0
On to the grades!
Quarterbacks: B. I'm grading McGloin against what he's done this season, and this was thoroughly mediocre. But hey, isn't it great that 18-30 for 211 yards and a TD (not to mention 2 rushing TDs) just merits a "yeah, whatever"? McGloin didn't force any throws into traffic, nor he did lock on to receivers, but he missed a number of wide open receivers and held on to the ball far too long, taking a couple awful coverage sacks. His pocket presence is still a work in progress.
Running Backs: A-. Today was supposed to be the return of Bill Belton and Derek Day, but once again, Zach Zwinak stole the show. He has an uncanny ability to somehow squeeze an extra two or three yards out of every single carry, and those added up to the first of what will be many 100-yard running games. Belton was good, though, in his return to action, looking every bit as quick and slippery as we'd remembered. Those two spearheaded a rushing attack that ran for over 200 yards today, and will make for a nice thunder-and-lightning duo moving forward.
Receivers: B. Only five Nittany Lions caught passes today, and Allen Robinson looked merely mortal, hauling in just 3 passes for 35 yards. Matt Lehman was the star among this group today, with 5 catches for 70 yards and the lone touchdown--and it's a good thing that he's okay after taking a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit at the end of the first half. Not too many drops, not too many big plays...there's really not much to say about this unit.
Offensive Line: A. Matt McGloin had all day to throw--yes, he was sacked 3 times, but two were coverage sacks against three rushers, and he had the opportunity to throw the ball away each time. There were holes for the backs to run through, as the Penn State line won the battle for the line of scrimmage. Best game of the season for the OL, and that was keyed by Donovan Smith's return.
Defensive Line: A-. Jordan Hill did a tremendous job eating up space, and the few runs into the line that Illinois tried--including one on the last play of the game--were swallowed up. Scheelhaase was sacked three times, and under pressure almost every time he dropped back. But Illinois had some success on the read option, and a lot of that was due to indecision on the part of the defensive ends.
Linebackers: A+++++++. Mike Mauti. Mike Mauti. Mike Mauti. Mike Mauti. Mike Mauti. MIKE MAUTI.
Okay, now that I've got that out of my system--Mike Mauti.
Damnit. Point is, Mauti's in the midst of an All-America caliber season, and Gerald Hodges is still every bit the Gerald Hodges we thought he'd be. Glenn Carson isn't going to get as much credit, given that he's playing between two of the best outside linebackers in the country, but he's made significant strides from last year. What more can you say?
Defensive backs: B. Yeah, Illinois passed for 292 yards--but a lot of that came in garbage time, and on a grand total of 47 attempts. Penn State's defensive backs played like a competent unit today, which is about the nicest thing you can say about their performance in the season thusfar. Also, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong is an assassin attacking the line; he laid OUT a couple Illini, but came out of the game in the second half with an injury. Penn State has got to hope he's just banged up and not seriously hurt.
Special teams: B. Yeah, Sam Ficken missed two field goals, but one was a 47-yarder and the other one was blocked. I mean, not great,but you can't kill him for that. Alex Butterworth had his best day of the season by far, netting over 40 yards per punt. Evan Lewis had a nice return. And Ficken booted each kickoff into the end zone. Nothing to get excited about, but a solid performance.
Coaching: B. O'Brien gets docked a full letter grade for not going for the jugular at the end of the first half. The fact that Ficken's field goal try was blocked was poetic justice. But there's really not much else to complain about. Ted Roof's dialed up some well-timed blitzes, and the offense did a good job adjusting to its success on the ground. And it's not exclusive to this game, but the front seven is the hallmark of this Penn State team, and it's all due to Vandy and LJSR. The smartest thing Bill O'Brien's done yet is still retaining those two.