We've probably been asking for this all year long the way we've been playing, and it caught up to us today
That's head coach James Franklin after yesterday's disappointing 16-14 loss to a now 5-6 Illinois Fighting Illini team. The win was just the third conference victory for Illinois coach Tim Beckman, who is clinging to his job as his third season in Champaign wraps up.
Across the field, it was more of the same for Penn State. After an opening drive capped by a Christian Hackenberg touchdown pass to Chris Godwin, the Lions would struggle to string together such series for the remaining 55 minutes. The PSU defense remained stout, but could not get the big stop when it was needed.
PSU won the opening toss for the first time in weeks, and sent the defense onto the field after Sam Ficken's kick was returned to just the Illini 7 yard line. After a giving up a first down on the opening play, an Anthony Zettel sack of QB Wes Lunt ultimately lead to a punt, and the Lions took over just inside the 50, at their own 48. Just like they did against Temple a week ago, Penn State marched right down the field behind Akeel Lynch's legs, and Hackenberg's arm. The drive came to a satisfying conclusion, thanks to a perfectly thrown 18 yard touchdown pass to the freshman Godwin on a corner route.
The defense would force a three and out, and another short punt into a strong wind. Jesse Della Valle returned the punt to the PSU 46, and it looked like the rout could be on early. Instead, PSU would appear go three and out themselves after a short Bill Belton run and two incomplete passes. Instead, senior Brad Bars took the direct snap on a perfectly executed fake punt, giving the Lions a first down at the Illini 22.
A DaeSean Hamilton jet sweep, and 4 Lynch runs gave PSU a 4th and 1 at the Illinois 3. Rather than go for what may have been a crippling TD, Franklin sent in Ficken for the field goal attempt. Instead of a 10-0 lead, a bobbled snap sent the Lions back to the sideline with nothing.
From there, PSU would go punt, punt, fumble, punt on offense, and force the Illini to punt 4 more times themselves. With just 2:52 left in the half, Beckman would pull the ineffective Lunt, and insert senior Reilly O'Toole at QB. It appeared the change would not provide the immediate spark the Illinois coach hoped for, with Illinois lining up for yet another punt after 3 O'Toole runs for 7 total yards. Instead, the PSU punt team was flagged for offsides, giving Illinois a second life they would not squander.
Two Donovonn Young runs gave Illinois a first down on the Penn State side of the field for the first time in the game. From there, O'Toole went 6 for 8, with four passes going to freshman receiver Mike Dudek, and the final one finding tight end Matt LaCrosse wide open in the end zone. Somehow, someway, Illinois had tied the game with seconds remaining in the first half.
Prior to the offside call on the punt, Illinois had run a total of 25 plays for 66 yards, including four 3 and outs, and a fifth that was nullified by the penalty. After the penalty, the Illini drove 9 plays for 58 yards.
If there was any doubt that the momentum has flipped to Illinois with the touchdown to close out the first half, it vanished with the kickoff to open the second half. The strong winds knocked the kick down at the PSU 28, and before any of the Lions return team could fall on the ball, the Illini had recovered the unplanned onside kick.
The Penn State defense was able to limit the damage to just 3 points, but two huge special teams miscues had lead to 10 unanswered for Illinois. The PSU offense would need to rally, after struggling to find any rhythm outside of the opening drive.
The Lions briefly found that rhythm, picking up two first downs behind another Hamilton jet sweep, and 3 Lynch runs. However, the drive would ultimately stall after Hackenberg missed an open Hamilton on a deep ball, a Hamilton carry, and Hackenberg failing to connect with Geno Lewis on a third down crossing route, leading to a punt.
The teams would trade punts over the next 3 possessions, all on three and outs. The last of which set PSU up with the ball at their own 23, and just 2:51 left in the third quarter, and the wind behind them. Hackenberg found freshman tight end Mike Gesicki for his first completion of the second half, and first since midway through the second quarter. After two Lynch runs to give the Lions a first down, a Geno Lewis end around that was a Hackenberg block/standing in the way away from a big gain, and the only reception of the day for Jesse James, the Lions had a first down at midfield. Then, much like the Indiana game, a lightning bolt struck in the form of an Akeel Lynch 47 yard touchdown run, giving the lead back to PSU.
With a chance to perhaps seize the game back for good, Penn State's defense took the field with a lead for the first time in the second half. Rather than shutting down the Illini, they would drive 58 yards, aided in part by a 4th down defensive holding call, capping it off with a 25 yard field goal.
Needing a drive to run clock and begin to seal the victory, Penn State would again go three and out, starting off with a first down illegal formation penalty. With a quarterback clearly struggling to find a rhythm, PSU would run the ball three times before punting back to Illinois.
The Illini would again have little problem driving the ball on a clearly tired Penn State defense. The usually sure tackling unit struggled to get Donovonn Smith on the ground on the opening play that went for 18 yards, or to make plays in the passing game that came easier in the first half. PSU would get a stop they needed at their own 33, which forced a 50 yard field goal that sailed wide with 3:29 to play.
Presented with a situation similar to what they faced at home against Maryland, PSU would run Lynch twice, and Hackenberg once, setting up a 4th down and feet at their own 41 with less than 2 minutes remaining. With a defense running on fumes and an offense that had only effectively moved the ball a few times all day, Franklin elected to kick. Had the team gone for an picked up a first down, it would have essentially ended the game.
The punt set Illinois up at their own 30 with 1:48 to play, and two timeouts. O'Toole would connect for 25 yards with Dudek over the middle on the first play, and 18 yards up the sideline to Marchie Murdock on the second, quickly putting the Illini on the edge of field goal range. A Josh Ferguson 16 yard run, complete with more missed tackles, moved the ball down to the PSU 14. Three plays later, sophomore kicker David Reisner, who was just 1 for 3 coming into the game, knocked the 36 yard field goal through the uprights for his third successful kick of the day, giving his team the 16-14 lead with just 8 seconds left. After an ill fated series of laterals, Illinois had their 2nd conference win of the season.
Plenty of attention will be given to the 4th down decision to punt, rather than go for it. Hindsight is always 20/20, but had the Lions failed to convert, a tired defense would be back on the field inside their own end territory. Would they have converted a sneak? Maybe. However, the last time PSU lined up to sneak it on a crucial 4th down, the snap was fumbled versus Maryland, and the Terps had their first win over PSU since 1961. It's also the same offense that could not get 1 yard versus Indiana two weeks ago on the goal line, with three chances.
Penn State returns home for senior day next weekend against Michigan State, renewing the Land Grant Trophy game for the first time since 2010. The last time this trophy was up for grabs, the Spartans walked away with a 28-22 victory that also handed them their first Big Ten title since 1990. At least 12 PSU seniors will play their final game in Beaver Stadium, including notables like Mike Hull, Sam Ficken, Adrian Amos, and Bill Belton. Hopefully Ryan Keiser, who was released from the hospital and returned to State College, will be able to make an appearance as well.
Three Completely Random, Probably Useless Thoughts
1) I am going to be completely sick of Mikey Dudek by the time he graduates in 2017. I will already guarantee you that he is going to be one of those guys, a la Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis that feels like they have played for 15 years. He is a very good player though, and if Illinois can put some talent around him, they may just find something on offense.
2) PSU's special teams have had quite the up and down year. Of course, Ficken has been a savior in a season full of offensive struggles. The coverage units have been, by in large, very effective. But there were three more huge mistakes yesterday that lead to ten points for the Illini, and three more taken off the board for the Lions. Those are things that just cannot happen to a team with so little margin for error.
3) It's Thanksgiving weekend, the students will be home on break, and the weather will almost certainly be cold. But consider this my plea to get out to Beaver Stadium next weekend. For one, there will be plenty of inexpensive tickets available. More importantly, however, it's senior day for plenty of guys that have meant an awful lot to this program, and have been through an awful lot they never signed up for. It's a 3:30 kickoff, it's a top 15 opponent, and it's our last shot to spend a Saturday in Beaver Stadium for over nine months.