The Penn State Nittany Lions are exceeding expectations one game at a time, with their latest achievement being a 35-7 road beatdown of Illinois in Memorial Stadium.
Illinois was a mess entering Saturday's game, but that doesn't take away from Penn State's win, its third straight after an 0-2 start. This was the first Big Ten win for a reeling, supposedly down-and-out program. Now, the message is loud and clear: Bill O'Brien and Penn State aren't going anywhere.
The Nittany Lions are improving with each passing week. It's not the most talented squad in the nation, making up for that with heart, passion and an undeniable chip on its shoulder.
Let's take a look at three important things Penn State can take from Saturday's game.
Defending Third Down
Illinois converted four of 15 third downs on Saturday. Granted, Penn State only converted six of 15, but its offense was able to pick up the slack elsewhere.
Stopping an offense on third down is key. Not only does it dash its hopes of continuing the current drive, but it decides momentum for the next series as well.
Penn State played an excellent game defensively, forcing three turnovers. It did allow 366 total yards, but most of those came with the game already in hand.
If the Nittany Lions want to continue their winning streak, this trend must continue.
Run the Ball
Penn State's run game had been virtually nonexistent before Saturday's win. Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton made sure that changed against the Illini.
Zwinak bruised his way to a 100-yard, two-touchdown performance, while Belton added 65 yards of his own. Each runner brings his own style to the table, allowing Penn State to have a versatile attack.
This is completely necessary for Penn State moving forward. Matt McGloin has been excellent behind center, but it's unrealistic to think that will happen every game. If the Nittany Lions want to keep winning, gaining yards on the ground has to happen.
Illinois' defense isn't an accurate barometer, but there were positive signs coming out of the Nittany Lions' backfield on Saturday.
Illinois head coach Tim Beckman was one of many coaches to recruit Penn State's players in the wake of the NCAA's sanctions. O'Brien didn't forgive that; at least we could tell as much, as the two coaches didn't exchange a handshake before the game.
On top of that, players from both teams had to be separated on their way to the locker room at halftime. That could have stemmed from Earnest Thomas' helmet-to-helmet hit on Matt Lehman in the second quarter, but who knows?
The Nittany Lions showed a ton of pride on Saturday. Beating Navy and Temple means nothing compared to claiming victory in their first Big Ten game of the season.
Penn State will need more of this as it enters its Week 6 matchup against Northwestern. The Wildcats are 5-0 and will provide Penn State with their stiffest challenge yet.
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