3 catches, 23 yards.
1 catch, 13 yards.
1 catch, 6 yards.
Those were the stat lines for the top three receivers that the Nittany Lions trotted out against the Fighting Illini: Keandre Lambert-Smith, Dante Cephas, and Malik McClain, respectively.
The Fighting Illini did to the Lions this past Saturday exactly what they did in 2021: stack the box, stop the run game, play a single high safety, and dare the passing game to beat you.
And it mostly worked.
Penn State sleep walked to a 30-13 game (30-7 before the starters came out), on a day where the offense was the definition of dysfunctional.
I won’t necessarily blame the offensive line - the Illini have an excellent defensive line, anchored by defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton - and Illinois always brought an extra defender up to the line, totaling 8 men in the box on most plays. That’s tough to block against, and tough to run against.
My ire comes from the passing game.
The pass protection was iffy, with Drew Allar being forced off his spot, and having to get out of rhythm all afternoon. Batted balls were a problem, as were a handful of penalties. But again, against 8 men, I’m not expecting everything to be peachy keen in the pocket.
The real problem was the receivers.
Against a defense that typically had just three defenders in the secondary, the Penn State receivers stuh-RUGGLED.
They failed to gain separation. On broken plays they couldn’t find ways to get open. When they did get open, they suffered a case of the dropsies. And just for good measure, when the run game was actually functioning, they threw in unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
The leading pass catcher was running back Nicholas Singleton, with 3 catches for 49 yards. The tight ends as a group played okay, reeling in a combined 5 catches for 67 yards and the only passing touchdown of the day.
But make no mistake, the Illini just showed everyone how to stop Penn State’s offense, which had heretofore played rather well. Stack the box, man up on the receivers, and trust that they will either a) fail to gain separation, b) not make themselves a viable target for the QB, c) drop the ball, or d) commit a penalty.
The Lions sleepwalked to a three score win on the road against a Big Ten opponent. All of that sounds good, and in most other years, I think we’d all be rather satisfied. But add in that the Lions were on the receiving end of five (!) turnovers, and there is no way that they shouldn’t have scored 40-plus points.
Ideally, the injured Harrison Wallace, III and Omari Evans, who were both held out of the game against Illinois, will return, and we’ll see some more reliable play from the wide receiving corps.
But Saturday’s game laid forth the exact blueprint on how to beat the Lions, and unless the receivers can make defenses pay, the high hopes for this season may end up dashed yet again.