Linebacker play was bad
Brandon Smith made some splash plays on Saturday. He blew up an Illinois wide receiver on an attempted reverse pass that led to an incomplete pass, as well as recording a strip sack. That said, he was often times out of position, appeared lost on plays and struggled to get off blocks. It was a maddeningly inconsistent day for Smith.
Ellies Brooks dropped an interception right before the half that would have given Penn State the ball at midfield. Brooks also made seemingly one poor read after another which led to him too often running himself out of the play. While Curtis Jacobs did record his first career interception on the opening drive by the Illini he was otherwise unheard from.
A big reason why the Nittany Lion defense struggled so mightily against the Illinois rushing attack was due to poor play at the second level of the defense. Too often the defensive line occupied blockers only for the linebackers to miss a tackle or be nowhere to be found creating running lanes for Illini ball carriers.
Poor run defense was a group effort
It would be easy to point at the lack of PJ Mustipher for Penn State struggling to stop the run on Saturday. To be honest, early in the game I was doing just that. However, as the game went on it was clear it was a group effort.
As we covered above the linebacker play as woeful. Tackling, from the entire defense, was bad and unacceptable. The defensive line had some poor moments, but there were far too many plays where the defensive line blew up the point of attack only to get no help behind them. The backside pursuit was non-existent and there appeared to be a lack of effort at times from certain members of the defense.
Illinois, whose offensive line I remind you was totally and completely thrown under the bus by their coach this past week, ran for 357 yards while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Take away Art Sitkowski and his sacks, and they averaged 6.4 yards per rush.
Quarterback calamity continues
One of my takeaways from the Iowa loss was that Sean Clifford was, by far, the most important Nittany Lion. After the Illinois loss not only is this still evidently clear it is also clear he is nowhere near 100% healthy.
Cliff never looked comfortable today. He missed throws that were there to be made, albeit he did not always get help from his receivers, and this led to Penn State leaving points on the field.
In addition to Clifford not being healthy it is evident that the coaching staff does not trust Ta’Quan Roberson or Christian Veilleux which is concerning. With Clifford appearing to function at about 50% at best he never should have been out there today, but due to what is behind him James Franklin and his staff saw it necessary in order to defeat, checks notes, Illinois!
Yes, the Nittany Lions have two talented signal callers coming in this offseason including the nation’s no. 1 ranked quarterback in Drew Allar, but they need to hammer the portal for any sort of quarterback help this offseason.
Tight ends... what are you doing?!
Entering the season tight ends were expected to be a strength for Penn State. Following the collective performance of Brenton Strange, Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren against Auburn this appears to be happening. Since then, the tight ends have regressed tremendously.
Saturday afternoon they each struggled to block. This led to multiple running plays being blown up before they started. Johnson dropped a likely go-ahead touchdown early in the 4th quarter, Warren (who was a high school quarterback) badly under threw a wide open Clifford on a trick play that would have won the game in overtime and Strange had a costly drop in overtime as well.
It goes without saying that the tight ends have disappointed this season.
Offensive line struggles continue
One thing that has been consistent in the now 8 seasons with Franklin at the helm has been poor offensive line play. Early in his tenure it was understandable as sanctions had gutted the Penn State offensive line. Talent, however, can no longer be pointed at for offensive line struggles.
Penn State has not been able to effectively run the ball all season. Saturday this continued as the Nittany Lions could not run the ball... against a defense that was ranked in the 100s in the FBS in rushing yards per game.
The Nittany Lions averaged just 2.1 yards per carry on Saturday. The offense line also struggled immensely to protect Clifford on passing downs. This is never good... especially when your quarterback is already hurt.
At this point lack of talent can no longer be an excuse. You can not say they “don’t have their guys.” Rasheed Walker and Caedan Wallace were top 100 recruits. Juice Scruggs was a high four-star recruit. There is zero reason for the offensive line play to be flat out bad. Zilch. None. Nada. It’s time to start questioning if Phil Trautwein’s job should be safe.