Oh, what a difference a few weeks make. After week one, it appeared Penn State was in for a season worse than last year's. However, with each passing week, this team has continued to improve ever so slightly. On Saturday, we finally saw all of those marginal improvements gel together in what may have been the Nittany Lions' best team performance under James Franklin. And the best part? This team has yet to reach its true peak.
Illinois took a page from Maryland's game plan last week and focused on keeping Saquon Barkley in front of them. They also did a good job of sniffing out the jet sweeps (which had previously plagued them), ripping down Brandon Polk for a five yard loss early on. What they weren't prepared to stop though, was Christian Hackenberg efficiency spreading the ball around the field. Hackenberg completed his first seven passes to three different receivers, culminating in a 5-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin. After a blocked PAT attempt, Penn State led 6-0.
Illinois looked poised to answer Penn State's first touchdown drive with one of their own, as Wes Lunt threw three quick passes and had Illinois near midfield. When he uncorked his fifth pass though, it went straight into the waiting arms of linebacker Troy Reeder who returned the ball 44 yards to the Illinois 6-yard line. It wouldn't take long for Penn State to turn Lunt's interception into points, as Hackenberg threw a jump ball to Geno Lewis for a touchdown one play later. Another blocked PAT attempt had Penn State leading 12-0 at that point.
After an Illinois punt, Penn State took over at its own 30 and drove all the way to the Illinois 37, when Hackenberg completed a pass to DeAndre Thompkins, who fumbled the ball. That would be the first of two fumbles Thompkins would cough up on the day. Penn State and Illinois would trade punts back and forth for the next five drives, until the Nittany Lions ended the streak with a field goal with 1:57 left in the half. After another Illinois punt, Penn State went into the locker room up 15-0.
Penn State did not waste any time in the second half burying the Illini. Koa Farmer took the opening kickoff 57 yards to the Illinois 43, and Christian Hackenberg quickly put the Nittany Lions at the Illinois' 14-yard line after a chop block penalty pushed them to the 33. On the next play, Nick Scott threw a pass to none other than Christian Hackenberg, and Penn State would go up 22-0 to start the third quarter.
Illinois couldn't really do much on offense for the next few drives, and after having a few drives with negative yardage, Illinois ended the third quarter with -11 yards on offense. That didn't change much in the fourth quarter, either. After a Saquon Barkley touchdown run in which the freshman running back defied laws of physics while hurdling two Illinois defenders and landing on top of a third, the game was out of hand. A garbage-time touchdown by Mark Allen, his first rushing touchdown of the season, would put the game at 39-0 with 3:27 left in the game, and it was all a formality from there.
Give credit to Wes Lunt for trying to put Illinois on his back. The Illini running game was going nowhere on Saturday, so it was up to Lunt to get his offense moving. He threw the ball 37 times, but the Nittany Lion defense was just too much to overcome.
A lot of us had doubts that Penn State would compete down the stretch, with many fans thinking that a 2-2 record over the final four games would be admirable, yet unfeasible. After this game, Penn State left no doubt in anyone's mind that they'll not only compete down the stretch, but they shouldn't be counted out against any of its remaining opponents.
Three Completely Unrelated, Probably Useless Thoughts
1) If it weren't for a few key drops, Christian Hackenberg would have had a perfect first quarter. He has come a long way from where he was last season to now. He has already thrown for more touchdowns this season than he did last, and there are still three regular season games left. Not to mention, his two interceptions to date rank among the lowest in college football.
2) It looks like we have a kicking competition going in Happy Valley. Joey Julius missed two extra points and shanked a kickoff, which saw him benched for Tyler Davis. Davis kicked two field goals and three extra points in his relief duties. Someone mentioned this in the comments of another article, but how wonderful is it to have the luxury of replacing a kicker that's having a bad day? Just three years ago, the only option was to roll the dice or go for it on fourth down.
3) We know who the best teams in the Big Ten are (Michigan, duh!), but who are the worst? Maryland looked every bit as futile against Iowa in the first half, but then they came alive in the second to make it a closer game than it should have been. Rutgers started out well enough in a season we all knew would be an uphill climb, but has been hit too hard with injuries and suspensions to maintain that success. Purdue is what we all expected. But who could have seen Nebraska collapsing this hard? Nebraska just finished getting taken to the woodshed against the Purdue team we all expected to finish 1-11 this season. I know Pelini had his faults, and he may have overstayed his welcome at Nebraska, but Riley has to win a Big Ten championship at Nebraska sooner rather than later to compensate for this incredible failure.