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Two Things I Liked, Two Things I Didn’t Like: Illinois Edition

Confirmed: Miles Sanders is good.

Penn State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images


1. Miles Sanders (And The Help From The Big Uglies)

I originally just planned to gawk over Miles Sanders, but it seemed rather unfair not to give the offensive line its credit first. While Sanders is very much a top five running back in the country, the big guys upfront are making life much easier for No. 24.

With Illinois’ defensive end Isaiah Gay crashing inside, it allowed Ryan Bates to go one-on-one with linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips on the edge. To no surprise, Bates had no trouble with Phillips, sealing the edge and opening a literal alley for Sanders to run down.

This isn’t to take anything away from Sanders, but when Penn State’s offensive line is opening up those types of holes, there isn’t a running back on the roster that wouldn’t be having success.

Still...what Sanders is doing is bonkers stuff. I said this in the write-up on Friday night, but Sanders is as complete as any running back in the country.

Patience to wait for a hole to open up, and then the vision to find it? Check.

Make people miss? Check.

Power to break tackles, and then the speed to take it to the house? Check.

Perhaps I’m by myself on this one, but I didn’t think Sanders would be this good. Yeah, I knew he was talented and thought he’d be one of the better backs in the Big Ten, but he’s far surpassed my expectations. If Penn State can take down the Buckeyes and Sanders has a big game in the process, he’ll start to garner well-deserved Heisman hype.

2. Penn State Getting Into Favorable Third Down Situations

The Nittany Lions had their best performance on third downs this season, converting on 9-of-11 chances against the Illini. Looking at each third down below...

Third-and-7: Trace McSorley ran for 7 yards (scramble after dropping back)
Third-and-5: Trace McSorley incomplete to Pat Freiermuth
Third-and-2: Miles Sanders ran for 6 yards
Third-and-2: Trace McSorley ran for 16 yards
Third-and-1: Trace McSorley ran for 3 yards
Third-and-3: Miles Sanders ran for 5 yards
Third-and-8: Trace McSorley incomplete to DeAndre Thompkins
Third-and-3: Ricky Slade ran for 5 yards
Third-and-1: Ricky Slade ran for 3 yards
Third-and-12: Trace McSorley passes to Juwan Johnson for 16 yards (Touchdown)
Third-and-12: Sean Clifford passes to Mac Hippenhammer for 44 yards

Two things pop out here:

  1. Seven of the 11 third down attempts were for five yards or less.
  2. Not even including Trace’s scramble on the first conversion, Penn State converted 6-of-6 third downs when it ran the ball.

Captain Obvious here, but both of these things are tremendously good for the Nittany Lions. Gaining positive yardage on first and second down to create third downs of five yards or less is something that really, really good teams do. And then when in those situations, being able to lean on the running game to pickup the necessary yardage for a first is a true game changer.


1. Run Defense

This was originally going to be just about the linebackers (who were not good), but goodness, that was a group effort by the front seven on Friday night. Remember after the Pitt game how James Franklin talked about having the defensive ends “spill” — which just essentially means hold your block and force the running back to run east-and-west?

Yeah, they didn’t do a very good job of that. Ellis Brooks actually did a solid job here of disengaging (okay, more of a whiff on the Illini offensive lineman). But with Shaka Toney pushed with his back toward the sideline (note: usually not good), it gave a nice beautiful hole for Mike Epstein to accelerate through, leaving Brooks in the dust.

There was also this 14-yard run from Epstein. First, just look at the screen grabs.

That’s Daniel Joseph as a standup defensive end. Epstein runs a sweep to the left with a blocker in front of him.

That’s where Joseph ended up. Too far upfield, allowing a massive hole for Epstein to run through. If Joseph is in better position, Epstein might not have been able to accelerate like he did, allowing Shaka Toney (the white jersey just behind him) a chance to catch him from behind. Instead...


This isn’t to say that the linebackers were good (again, they were not) but the defensive line really didn’t help matters. Granted, things got better after halftime, but the Illini were still having some level of success (they had three series of at least 8 plays) even in the second half. With a much better offense coming to town this Saturday, Penn State has to do a better job of winning the battle at the line of scrimmage because if JK Dobbins has that much room between the tackles, it isn’t going to be a pleasant night for Brent Pry’s unit.

2. Friday Night Games

Do I enjoy that I can talk myself into that one extra day off making a difference against Ohio State? Oh, absolutely. But let’s leave the Friday night showdowns to the lower tier programs like Northwestern, Rutgers, and Michigan. Just Saturday games for Penn State from here on out, okay Big Ten?