I've sat here for about an hour now, trying to write something coherent. I've probably typed and deleted about a thousand words by now. I've written angry, and I've written despondent. I've written resigned, and I've written indignant. I've wasted enough time and energy trying to summarize a game that I wasted enough time and energy watching that I'm not sure who's more pitiable, me, or the team that just let Tim Beckman walk off the field a winner.
This Penn State team is a bad one. The offense is bad, the special teams are bad, and the defense, today, wasn't much better. It's making a bowl game because of a soft schedule, a hilariously down Big Ten, and okay, fine, a generally terrific defense that decided, for most of the day, not to show up.
We've lost games this year to good teams and to bad ones, we've been blown out, and we've lost in the final seconds. But this one is worse than any I can remember. It's not just that Penn State lost to Illinois, it's that Penn State so thoroughly deserved to lose to Illinois. And it all came to a head because James Franklin was too much of a coward to believe that his team could just pound the ball inside and gain the half a yard they needed to put the game away.
Penn State fans hate Illinois and Tim Beckman for what he did, and what he tried to do, to this program. When Penn State had leaders like Michael Mauti, the team fed off that hate. It fueled them. I wonder if anyone on this utterly rudderless team even bothered to tell the underclassmen. We've seen what this team is capable of when they're clicking on all cylinders: take the second half last week, which we confused for optimism, for a team turning the corner.
Today, they didn't show up. And I can only hope that the players and coaches are as embarrassed, ashamed, and angry as I am right now.
Illinois allowed 35 points to Texas State, and 34 to Western Kentucky. Even Youngstown State put up 17 on the Illini defense, which entered today dead last in the Big Ten in total and scoring defense. So naturally, just like every other garbage defense this Penn State offense has faced, they played their best game against the offense led by John Donovan, who never seemed to realize that there was a win at stake.
No, Christian Hackenberg hasn't been great this season, but, before the final, futile, hook-and-ladder, he threw the ball 15 times. Penn State ran it 47 times for barely three yards a carry, setting aside Brad Bars' fake punt rumble. Cole Chiappialle came in with Bill Belton hurting and Akeel Lynch in the doghouse, and took three handoffs in a four-play span. We've been saying all season that John Donovan has no idea how to utilize a quarterback like Christian Hackenberg, but today, he seemed to pretend that Hack didn't exist. Maybe if he closed his eyes and plugged his ears and started yelling "na na na na I can't hear you," Donovan thought, the problem would just go away. Nothing he has done all season has worked with any consistency. His offenses at Vanderbilt were about as bad as they've been all season long. It's not the personnel--not solely, at least.
Perhaps it's for the best that the defense had a bad game today. Maybe it's a good thing that the offense didn't get bailed out this time. The offense deserved to lose, as they've deserved to lose so many times this year. Maybe the shame of having lost to Illinois will allow it to set in. There's no more denial anymore: We are Penn State, and we have a problem.
The shame of it is that the defense, for how good it's been all year, wasn't much better than the offense today. We know Bob Shoop and his unit can do better, because they have, and we know they will, so there's no reason to overreact. But that doesn't make today's performance any less frustrating. For the first time since the Akron game, they didn't force a turnover; for the first time all season they took the field with a few minutes to go protecting a lead and didn't have our complete and unfailing confidence. As soon as Illinois made the switch to Reilly O'Toole, Bob Shoop's magic ran out: the blitzes didn't get home, the coverage didn't stick, the linebackers and defensive linemen, even Mike Hull, didn't wrap up and bring down opposing ballcarriers with any regularity. There were too many open receivers, too many missed tackles, too many easy completions and blown opportunities.
And the cruelest irony is this: they still did enough to win, if it weren't for an offense that couldn't get out of its own way and a special teams group that botched one field goal and declined to return a kickoff and jumped offsides before a punt to extend an Illinois drive.
Okay, that's all I've got. We've got one game to go before bowl practices begin. The sick part is that those matter more than next week's inevitable loss.