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Position Grades: Illinois

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No shortage of things to grade this week!

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

Well, that was a fitting end to what Chris T best described as a “short, strange, trip” of a season! Personally, I’m glad the team declined a bowl game, even if I’m selfishly sad to see the 16-year non-losing season streak come to an end. In these awful times, it’s best that the players and staff spend the holiday season with their loved ones, instead of preparing to travel and play in another big empty stadium in a meaningless bowl game.

Anyway, for the final time in 2020, here are your position grades:

Quarterback: A-

Yes, Sean Clifford had that fumble early on which set up an easy Illinois touchdown. He did however, toss for 285 yards on 16-of-22 passing and a pair of TD’s to Jahan Dotson (more on him, in a bit). Will Levis was able to convert a pair of critical fourth down runs, even when Illinois knew exactly what was coming. Not only did Levis run for a TD, but he also threw for a TD, as well. Even more importantly, not one interception was thrown. For that, we’re giving the QB’s their first and only A grade for 2020.

Running Back: A

With Devyn Ford unavailable, Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes made for a solid running duo, rushing for 85 and 77 yards respectively. Lee reached the end zone once while Holmes scored his first two collegiate TD’s and showed nice bursts of speed and shiftiness that explained why he rocks the prestigious No. 26 jersey.

Wide Receiver: A+++

In the spirit of Ralphie’s teacher from A Christmas Story, I’m handing out the best grade of the season to the wide receivers.

If that was indeed Jahan Dotson’s final game in a Penn State uniform, then what a way to go out: 189 yards and two touchdowns on just six catches. The first TD set the tone for the entire game for the PSU offense, as he literally took the first play from scrimmage 75 yards to the house. He followed that up later in the second quarter with a 70-yard TD reception off a screen pass that blew the game wide open as PSU took a commanding 42-21 lead into the locker room.

Jahan even damn near had back-to-back weeks of returning a punt to the house, but was stopped ten yards shy of the end zone (PSU would punch it in on the ensuing drive). Parker Washington, Cam Sullivan-Brown, and KeAndre Lambert-Smith had one catch apiece, helping to extend drives.

Tight End: A

So, who else is excited that Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson will be sharing the same tight end room for at least the next year? Strange had one of the game’s top highlights by somebody other than Dotson, taking a screen pass from Levis on 4th and one from deep inside Illinois’ red zone, breaking a tackle that would’ve stopped him short of the sticks, and leaping his way into the pylon for six. In addition to Strange’s four receptions, Theo also added a pair of catches as he looked comfortable out there, as well. And how about Tyler Warren and his blocking? Good stuff.

Offensive Line: B+

They did allow one too many sacks to a team who’s scholarship defensive player depth was decimated, which prevents them from getting an A, but overall it’s hard to complain too much about their performance.

Defensive Line: A

PJ Mustipher, Shaka Toney, and Antonio Shelton, were forces to be reckoned with, as they disrupted the Illini backfield and garnered a sack apiece. Shelton had arguably the most importantly defensive play of the game when early in the second half with Illinois driving and threatening to make it a two-score game again, he sacked and forced a fumble by Illinois’ QB Isaiah Williams on 4th down near the PSU 30 yard line. The Illini never came close to threatening to score the remainder of the game.

Linebacker: B+

Still some glaring issues with tackling in the open field, as they allowed Williams to break off some huge gains on the ground, and somehow failed to bring down or at least knock Illini tight end Daniel Barker out of bounds during his 38-yard TD scamper and end zone twerk. That being said, Brandon Smith looked like a dude out there, and is starting to harness his insane athleticism with sound fundamental linebacking play.

Secondary: A-

Illinois only had 120 yards passing, though the secondary did get bailed out by a couple of drops that would’ve otherwise been huge gains. It’s hard to blame the secondary for either of the two TD passes allowed though, as Williams scrambled around in a short field passing situation on one and the linebackers failed to tackle Barker on the sidelines on the other. Keaton Ellis led the group with an interception and pass breakup and Jaquan Brisker also added seven tackles.

Special Teams: A-

Lamont Wade went out with a bang, taking a kickoff 100 yards to the house right after Illinois had tied the game up 7-7 after taking advantage of Cliff’s fumble in PSU’s own red zone. It helped solidify what felt like the wildest first quarter in modern PSU football history. Dotson’s punt return that we mentioned earlier went for 50 yards and set up PSU with a very short field to add another TD to the scoreboard. Jordan Stout also put eight of his nine kickoffs for touchbacks. Jake Pinegar missing what should’ve been an easy 35-yard field goal from the left hashmark and Jordan Stout struggling somewhat with punts are what add a minus to the A grade.