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Position Grades: Illinois

How does one attempt to grade this game? We decided to give it a shot.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that sure was an interesting Friday night game. Let’s never do it again, shall we?

Quarterback: A-

Trace McSorley’s passing numbers were once again pedestrian yardage-wise (160 yards on 12 of 19 attempts) but he did toss for a hat trick of touchdowns and also racked up 92 yards on 16 carries. He and Miles Sanders were a lethal one-two rushing combination that constantly kept Illinois’ defense guessing (and guessing wrongly). Trace did throw an interception that allowed Illinois to kick a field goal and cut PSU’s lead to four points at halftime, giving them even more momentum going into the locker room. Other than that though, it was another solid performance out of him.

More importantly, Sean Clifford remains a perfect 5-for-5 passing in his career, slinging a 44-yarder to Mac Hippenhammer that set up Slade’s second TD run of the night.

Running Back: A+

Penn State’s 387 total rushing yards were the most the team tallied 390 yards on the ground against Michigan State in 2002. If that game sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same game where Larry Johnson eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark.

Speaking of Larry Johnson comparisons: Miles Sanders rushed for 200 yards and three TD’s, which were the most yards and TD’s a Penn State running back had tallied in a game since the aforementioned “2K for LJ” game against Sparty in 2002.

Ricky Slade also had a stellar night cleaning up for Miles, racking up 94 yards on 10 carries and two TD’s

Wide Receiver/Tight End: B+

Welcome back, Juwan Johnson! It was great to see JJ finally step up as everyone expected him to all offseason long, grabbing a team-high four catches for 51 yards and a clutch TD at the beginning of the fourth quarter with PSU clinging to a 28-24 lead to help push the Nittany Lions’ lead back into double digits. KJ Hamler added another clutch TD shortly afterwards immediately following a Jan Johnson interception. KJ’s TD pushed the lead to 42-24 and shut the door on any realistic upset possibilities for the Illini. It may have a been a quiet night overall for this group, and Jonathan Holland’s fumble on a very promising opening drive was kind of a buzzkill, but this unit did come up big when they absolutely needed to.

Offensive Line: A

When the offense puts up nearly 600 total yards on an opponent, it’s hard to give the O-line anything less than an A-grade. Perhaps a few less holding penalties but otherwise, tremendous job asserting their will on Illinois’ defensive line in run blocking, giving Sanders (or whoever was carrying the ball) plenty of holes to go through.

Defensive Line: C

It wasn’t a pretty first 2.5 quarters for this group, allowing the Illini to gain 279 yards on the ground and giving MJ Rivers enough time to find receivers downfield to extend drives. Eventually though, this unit did start to weigh down on Illinois’ O-line, and Robert Windsor was able to get a clutch sack on a drive

Linebacker: C+

Along with the D-line, this unit continues to have issues with stopping the run (at least in the early-going). They did eventually get their act together enough, and Jan Johnson and Ellis Brooks both came up with interceptions that set up touchdowns, with Johnson’s being particularly important as it came right after PSU went up 35-24. The McSorley-to-Hamler connection happened just one play later. Johnson along with Micah Parsons both had six tackles apiece.

Secondary: B

Jonathan Sutherland and Garrett Taylor were your tackling leaders with eight (one tackle for loss) and seven (1.5 TFL), respectively. Both helped in run support and in not allowing too many yards after the catch for Illinois’ receivers. Unfortunately for John Reid, it seems that his year away from football has made him rusty and unable to cover the way he did pre-injury. Tariq Castro-Fields is likely your starter opposite from Amani Orurwariye.

Special Teams: B-

Blake Gillikin only had to be called on once, and he punted a 42-yarder that wasn’t returned. Nothing truly notable in the return games, but KJ Hamler’s daringness to take kickoffs out of the end zone finally bit him in the ass when he was tackled around the 10-yard line. Rafael Checa put five of his seven kickoffs into the back of the end zone, but also sent two out of bounds. Jake Pinegar missed a 44-yarder into the wind, which was his only field goal attempt, putting him at 1-for-3 on the year.