Saturday’s victory over Illinois had all the classic hallmarks of what makes it so difficult to win week in and week out in the Big Ten — a team that is physical in the trenches, a coach that knows how to keep an offense out of rhythm, and yes, that early 11 AM kick time.
It didn’t look easy at times, but Penn State took care of business with a 17-point victory on the road against a quality conference opponent. While the offense made some things happen, the opportunistic defense took things over by repeatedly stalling Illinois drives and getting off the field to make sure the Nittany Lions kept the lead and control of the game before pulling away for good in the second half.
Let’s take a look at the team effort that led to those five turnovers:
With the game still knotted up 0-0, Illinois was approaching Nittany Lion territory and looking to take an early lead. However, outside linebacker Dominic DeLuca had other plans. DeLuca crashed down on an inside handoff and leveled the Illinois back with a crunching blow to the midsection, popping the ball loose on contact. Middle linebacker Kobe King didn’t hesitate to pounce on the ball to give the Nittany Lions their first turnover and momentum boost. It was the second turnover caused by DeLuca in two weeks, following a pick six in Penn State’s 63-7 romp of Delaware.
Illinois was again nearing Nittany Lion territory when Luke Altmyer looked across the middle for playmaking receiver Juice Williams. What Altmyer didn’t see was Abdul Carter dropping into coverage, where he snagged Altmyer’s pass and returned it 18 yards to give the Nittany Lions excellent field position with a 3-0 lead.
As Penn State hung on to a 6-0 lead near the end of the first quarter, Altmyer was looking for a big play. He thought he had a chance down the left sideline with his man in single coverage. Unfortunately for Altmyer, Daequan Hardy was in perfect position and snagged the ball out of the air before the Illinois receiver had a chance. It was Hardy’s first action of the season after missing the first two weeks.
Illinois was in business after a long pass set up a 1st and 10 at the Penn State 25, looking to seize some momentum and cut into the Nittany Lions’ 16-7 lead. Altmyer again looked down the left sideline for another big play, but cornerback Johnnie Dixon was not about to let it happen on his watch. Dixon was in tight coverage, allowing him to pluck the ball at the seven yard line before a 20 yard return squashed Illinois’ hopes of a quick second half rally.
Illinois was looking to make something happen after falling behind 23-7 near the end of the third quarter. Altmyer again made the mistake of throwing the ball in a tight space against the Nittany Lions secondary. This time, it was sophomore cornerback Cam Miller in perfect coverage. The interception would set up Penn State’s offense at the Illinois 31, and a few plays later Nicholas Singleton would sprint to the end zone to slam the door shut with a 30-7 lead.