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What A Short, Strange Trip It’s Been

Sometimes the light’s all shining on thee. Other times, you can barely see. Just keep trucking, like Keyvone Lee.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

In August it was announced that the Big Ten would not play football in 2020. Commissioner Kevin Warren said that the decision would not be revisited on August 19, exactly 4 months to the day that the Big Ten football season ended. A lot has happened since the Lions’ first game against Indiana less than two months ago.

A five-game losing streak has turned into a 4-game win streak. It took a combination of skill and luck to be able to play all nine scheduled games and as fans we should be thankful to have had the entertainment.

The Illinois football team were great sports to even show up in State College. In a season with teams canceling due to covid concerns, the Illini could have stayed home for this one and no one would have questioned the decision. With only 2 scholarship linebackers making the trip and a boatload of players out for various reasons, they had an uphill battle.

Josh Imatorbhebhe, Illinois’ best wide receiver, opted out of the game late in the week. Head coach Lovie Smith was fired midweek and just when it looked like things couldn’t get worse, the team hired Bret Bielema and gave him a 6-year contract.

James Franklin and his team owe some gratitude to the fact that Illinois made the trip and gave the Lions a chance to win a fourth game. In a year with players and teams taking the easy way out at times it was nice to see a group of young men that would do anything that they could to play just one more football game.

Thank you, Illinois. You didn’t have enough talent on Saturday to hang with Penn State but you showed that you are true competitors, simply wanting to put the pads on one more time.

How It Happened

The Penn State defense opted out of the game until early in the second quarter. Keaton Ellis intercepted a pass to end Illinois’ first drive but following that play Brent Pry’s side of the ball struggled. A short field due to a Sean Clifford fumble made it easier for the Illini to score its first touchdown and a 64-yard pass and catch set up the second score of the day for the visiting team.

It took just 4 plays to go 63 yards late in the opening quarter and Illinois took a 21-14 lead. A Jahan Dotson touchdown reception on the opening play of the game from 75 yards out and a 100-yard kickoff return by Lamont Wade helped the Lions keep pace while the defense got its feet settled.

The Lions ripped off 21 unanswered points to take a commanding 35-21 lead, starting with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that was capped off by a Will Levis touchdown run on 4th and goal from the 3. A 50-yard punt return by Jahan Dotson set up a 10-yard drive that featured two runs by Caziah Holmes, who got into the end zone on the second try. Keyvone Lee scored from the 1 yard line on a 15-play drive that went 91 yards and just like that Penn State was in control of the game.

The defense allowed just 2 yards on the following drive, getting the ball back after 3 plays. Sean Clifford hit Jahan Dotson behind the line of scrimmage on a screen pass on the first play of the next drive and he took it 70 yards to the end zone. For a second week in a row Dotson was carried on the sideline by his teammates and once again we have to show the joy on his face and the congratulations from his friends. There haven’t been enough good feelings to go around this year.

Can you imagine what it would have sounded like in Beaver Stadium had there been 107,000 fans in attendance? Surely there was noise in each household as we watched on television and while we did not celebrate together we felt happy in unison.

Brent Pry’s defense held strong with another 3 and out on the next possession, getting the ball back to the offense with a 42-21 lead just a couple of minutes before halftime. A promising drive stalled with time becoming a factor and Jake Pinegar missed a 35-yard field goal a few inches to the left as time expired.

Midway through the third quarter with Illinois driving the ball into Penn State territory, you could hear on the television broadcast, via the piped-in crowd noise, that tension was growing in the air for the cardboard cut-out fans that toughed it out in the snow-filled seats. Antonio Shelton had a sack and forced fumble to end the threat.

Shelton is a senior and it was nice to see him put the final touches on the win, as the play ended any chance of his team losing. It appears that Shelton may have had a bee or wasp in front of him as he got to the sideline as his hands and arms swung to fend it off.

Brenton Strange had a leaping touchdown to build the lead to 49-21. Caziah Holmes added a touchdown run with 3:32 to go to get the Lions to 56 points.

Quick Hits

  • KeAndre Lambert-Smith has been playing well lately. He got behind the defense for what could have been a long touchdown early in the second half but Clifford was short with the throw. Lambert-Smith has shown that he will be a reliable target in the future, which bodes well considering how Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington have turned into players that other teams have to give extra attention. It was all Dotson in the box score but the other wideouts caught the ball when targeted.
  • Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson each looked great while catching the football. Since Pat Freiermuth went out with a season-ending injury, the duo has done well to decrease the impact of his loss. Johnson caught a couple in the seam and looked very smooth running the route and hauling in the pass. Strange continues to be a good target in the mid-range game and he finished a play for a touchdown that iced the game.
  • James Franklin faced an immense amount of scrutiny just one month ago. Four weeks and four wins later it seems as though he has made it through the turbulent times. It was tough to watch a good man struggle, knowing that he is separated from his family due to concerns for his daughter. There was a great deal of negativity thrown his way and he gets paid millions of dollars to deal with that type of heat. That being said, he is also just a man, an emotional, compassionate one at that. It’s nice to know, for he and his family, that things should get easier in the coming weeks.