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A Hard Fought Road Win

Penn State was in a battle with Illinois for the first three quarters, but pulled away in the fourth.

Penn State Nittany Lions players celebrate after defeating the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State has not opened conference play at home since 2015 (and has only done so once in the past 13 seasons). And, in all but one of those contests, the Nittany Lions either lost outright, or was in a battle going into the fourth quarter. The Lone exception, of course, was the 59-0 shellacking of Maryland in 2019. Opening Big Ten play on the road and barely coming out with a victory is a tradition as entrenched as the Whiteout at this point.

The eighth iteration of the traditional “open conference play on the road” game, the Nittany Lions saw themselves playing the same script they’ve seen over and over again. Illinois, a team many left for dead after its dreadful performances against Toledo and Kansas, gave the Lions everything they could have possibly asked for, and then some. The Illini defense looked unstoppable at times, the offense looked to be in a groove, and, were it not for five untimely turnovers, the game would have likely been decided a lot later than it did.

On the other hand, Penn State benefited from this type of battle early, as they now have plenty of film to study in the coming weeks. Drew Allar, in his early career as starter, had by far the worst game he’s had as a Nittany Lion, proving that talent alone won’t get you over the hump, but it certainly helps to have it as experience points start to stack up.

Penn State generated three first-quarter turnovers as the offense got its bearings under it. The first one came when Josh McCray fumbled at the Illinois 43. Penn State drove to the Illinois 2-yard line, but were unable to punch it in. They settled for a field goal. The second came on Luke Altmyer’s first interception of the day, at the Penn State 45. The Lions, on a dropped pass by Malik McClain, would stall out once more and settle for a second field goal. The third came when Altmyer once again threw the ball to the wrong team, an interception that would finally result in seven points, putting the Lions up 13-0 early.

All throughout, the Illini were finding ways to move the ball on the Lions, but each drive ended with a turnover. When Illinois was finally able to put a drive together, they went 68 yards in 7 plays to put themselves on the board. The teams traded punts, and as the half came to a close, the Lions tacked on another field goal to go into the half up nine.

Neither team would score again until the end of the third quarter, when Trey Potts took a pass from Allar, and then passed it to Tyler Warren, who was wide open in the end zone. Another interception later, the fourth for the Illini quarterback and fifth turnover overall, the Nittany Lions salted the game away, a final touchdown that made the 30-7 score insurmountable for a team that was unable to finish drives without a turnover for most of the afternoon.

I’m a firm believer in “take away a part of the game and it’s a different game,” so removing the five turnovers the defense earned is unrealistic. Instead, I’ll focus on the fact that, on a day where Penn State needed to play complementary football to stay ahead, the defense did plenty to pull their end of the bargain. Now, with the game behind them, and with plenty of film to learn from, the Lions move on to their next test.

Stats and Storylines

48.4 - Allar’s completion percentage in this game. A stark departure from the first two games, this is a reminder that he’s still a young quarterback with a pretty high ceiling.

0 - The number of turnovers of any kind for that same quarterback through three games. This is a reminder that even with the lack of experience and growing pains ahead, he’s still a great quarterback that has, and will continue to, elevate the team’s level of play.

10 - The number of games Penn State has scored at least 30 points in. This is the longest streak in the country.