As the clock ticked to zero a week ago, there was only one bit of solace we Penn State fans could take: That was the nadir of our season. We'd just suffered our worst loss since before the forward pass was invented, we'd been blown out; demoralized, dispirited, and destroyed. But lo, Illinois was next on the schedule, Illinois and its detestable coach and its losing streak of historical proportions, and a Penn State team ready to rebound would unleash its wrath upon the hapless Illini.
Not quite. Last week was the worst loss most of us have ever seen, but this was the worst win I can possibly imagine. And somehow, it doesn't feel much better.
We spent most of this game arguing who was most to blame, which unit was worse. Was it the John Butler defense that allowed Illinois to convert 3rd and long after 3rd and long? Was it Bill O'Brien's offense that never found a play-calling rhythm, a second option in the passing game, or a running back who can hold on to the ball? Was the goat going to be Sam Ficken once again, his missed 37-yard field goal providing the margin of victory for the Illini? Or maybe Malcolm Willis, who bailed out Tim Beckman's hideous clock management at the close of the first half by having the audacity to lay a finger on Nathan Scheelhaase and drawing a roughing the passer penalty.
Here's the real answer, though: They're all to blame, for the most uninspired, stupid, undisciplined and inexcusable performance by a Penn State team in recent memory. And we won.
This isn't just a young, inexperienced, thin and depleted football team, it's simply a bad one, a bad one with a few really good pieces, but a bad one nonetheless, and the rest of the season doesn't look so bright. A decent team could still get blown out by Ohio State, a decent team could still get tripped up by UCF and Indiana, but Illinois is a terrible football team that came into Beaver Stadium and came this close to winning for the first time in 22 Big Ten games, so what the hell does that make us?
We did not win this game. Illinois lost it. We tried to lose it to, but failed to even do that. We committed eleven penalties, allowed Illinois to convert 62% of their third downs, failed to capitalize on good field position and end long drives in even field goals, and got unbelievably fortunate that Illinois has no idea how to play a Big Ten team and come away victorious. Bill O'Brien's playcalling was, at times, maddening; despite its strong start, despite forcing two interceptions on tipped passes, and despite allowing just 17 points, John Butler's defense was inept in the same ways its been inept all season, against the pass and on the edge and on third downs. Without Trevor Williams to throw at, Jordan Lucas became the new target; although he laid some big hits, he was too often nowhere near his man, even on third and long. Also, given how Scheelhaase barely looked Adrian Amos's way, isn't it an indictment of the coaching staff that Amos hadn't been at corner before last week?
Here's the good news: This Nittany Lion team has some balls. At least, the offense does. They put together three game-winning drives in the final minutes, though numbers one and two were marred by Bill Belton's fumble and Brandon Felder's drop the end zone, to dampen our spirits first and then settle for the field goal that forced overtime. And then once we were in the extra frame, despite the Big Ten referees deciding that this would be the perfect time to finally throw a flag for holding--never mind the dozens of blatant instances we all saw and complained about vociferously throughout the game--Hackenberg shrugged it off, delivered the game winning bullet of a touchdown pass to the forgotten Kyle Carter.
A little more good news: The next two games come against Minnesota and Purdue, and while the Gophers have been surprisingly game this season, they're two winnable games, two games that should give BOB and Butler a chance to make some adjustments, figure out what works, and regroup before the one-two punch of Nebraska and Wisconsin to close out 2013. Even this season, for all its aggravation and heartache, can be a launchpad to more success a year from now if we can close out strong.
But right now? I wouldn't count on it.
On to the grades:
Quarterbacks: B+. Christian Hackenberg avoided the poor decisions that have hurt Penn State so much this season, and that makes up for quite a bit; the missed open receivers, the long stretches in the second half where he looked completely out of it. And like we said, for an 18-year old, the kid does not back down from a challenge, and that's why it makes so much more sense that he'd choose to stick with Bill O'Brien and Penn State when so many jumped ship. And he showed some moves, running for a touchdown that the refs who did the Nebraska game last year think was a fumble.
Running Backs: A-. If it weren't for the fumble, we'd be gushing about the best game of Bill Belton's career. He was quick, shifty, elusive but also powerful and strong and gutty, running through tacklers like Zach Zwinak did so often last year. But coughing up the ball at the two-yard line erases a whole lot of good will. Still, 200 yards are 200 yards, though if the fumbilitis continues, we might finally see more Akeel Lynch.
Receivers: A-. Good lord, Allen Robinson. Allen Robinson? Allen Robinson. Allen freaking Robinson, you guys. Another 11 catches, another 165 yards, another stunning, leaping catch down the left sideline with Penn State needing it so badly so late in the game. It's hardly going out on a limb to suggest that he's the best receiver in the college game. The other guys were solid enough, though Felder's drop of a perfect toss in the end zone in the closing seconds looms large.
Offensive Line: A. Donovan Smith didn't start for the first time in the last two years, then got banged up, but he was back in before the game was over, and was part of an offensive line that yes, allowed a sack, and yes, committed a few penalties, but generally opened up gaping holes in the run game, gave Hackenberg plenty of time to throw, and controlled the line of scrimmage.
Defensive Line: A-. Only one sack of Scheelhaase, but only 89 yards rushing for the Illini, and tons of forced, albeit uncalled, holding penalties. Sooner or later, the muggings that Deion Barnes takes on almost every play are going to have to result in something positive for Penn State, right?
Linebackers: B. Mike Hull and Glenn Carson combined for 24 tackles, but failed to make many big plays; Illinois had just four plays go for a loss. Penn State did a much better job defending the Illini read option than the Buckeye version, but it helps when you're not going up against Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. Penn State continues to defend tight end seam passes with overmatched linebackers, and Ben Kline got burned a couple times, though Scheelhaase failed to take advantage.
Defensive Backs: C-. Two interceptions are the saving grace for a unit that struggled like it has every game this season, interceptions and Nathan Scheelhaase's inability, especially early, to hit the receivers that came open on virtually every single play. John Butler's incessant third down blitzes left Jordan Lucas on an island and Jordan Lucas is not Darrelle Revis. We can assume that Adrian Amos played well since we rarely heard his name, but the safeties are still slow, the depth continues to be nonexistent, and Scheelhaase still threw for over 300 yards. And Jesus, what was Malcolm Willis thinking at the end of the first half?
Special Teams: B. Sam Ficken missed a field goal, but made the one he needed to. Alex Butterworth was solid on his three punts, pinning one inside the five. The returns on both sides were unspectacular. Solid enough job by this unit.
Coaching: D+. It's weird, usually when the coaching comes under this kind of scrutiny and draws this much criticism, there are obvious mistakes, idiotic decisions we can point to that lost, or could have lost the game for Penn State. Instead, it was the general listlessness of the Lions, the same general unenthusiasm, and the same lack of urgency that have plagued this team all season. The same inability to make adjustments, the same second half slump. We've gotten to the point where we're past the backlash to the coaching staff, especially John Butler, past the backlash to the backlash, and now at some third derivative of criticism, where we snipe at those who dared belittle the initial impatients. It's getting old, fast, and the only way for that to change is for someone, especially John Butler, to do something different.