Illinois vs. Penn State: 10 Things We Learned in Nittany Lions Win
A big question circling Penn State heading into this week was how it would respond after last week's 63-14 whooping at Ohio State.
The short answer? The Nittany Lions did just enough to win against Illinois, taking the 24-17 overtime victory.
But there was much more to Saturday's game than the final score. A lot was learned about the Lions as they head into the final four games of the regular season.
Click through the slides to see what we learned about Penn State from this seven-point win over the Fighting Illini.
The Lions Thrive Under Pressure
Scholarship reductions from the Jerry Sandusky/NCAA scandal may have thinned out Penn State's roster, but it hasn't affected its ability to play hard and well in pressure situations.
For the second straight home game, the Nittany Lions needed a late score to force overtime and did so with ease both times. Against Illinois, though, it was just a field goal after Brandon Felder dropped a game-winning TD with a minute left.
PSU also played with poise and composure in overtime yet again, with quarterback Christian Hackenberg calmly and coolly finding tight end Kyle Carter on third down for the 14-yard TD.
Bill Belton Wants the Ball
Running back Bill Belton made his first career start a memorable one.
After rushing for 85 yards and 98 yards the previous two games, Belton replaced former starter Zach Zwanik and carried it 36 times for 201 yards and a touchdown against Illinois.
Belton, a junior, had only 467 yards through the first seven games, but against the Illini he was the go-to guy, getting the ball on a pair of fourth-down plays with successful results.
He did have a critical fumble in the fourth quarter, losing the ball at the Illinois 1-yard line. However, when Penn State got the ball back, the Nittany Lions again relied on Belton to balance the Christian Hackenberg's passing.
Expect him to continue to get a lot more touches as the season goes on, making Penn State's play-calling that much more diversified.
Allen Robinson Needs Some Help
Penn State receiver Allen Robinson had another game typical of his elite status. The Big Ten's top pass-catcher caught 11 balls for 165 yards and also had a 14-yard run on his only carry.
If Christian Hackenberg threw the ball his way, Robinson was going to catch it, no matter how many Illinois defenders were on him.
But that's the problem: teams are loading up to try and stop Robinson, which means other receivers should be getting open. And none of them are stepping up.
Tight end Kyle Carter did catch the game-winning touchdown in overtime, but that was his only catch of the day. He and his non-Robinson teammates had a combined nine receptions for 75 yards.
Mobile Quarterbacks Are Still a Problem
Though not as much of a problem as that of Ohio State's Braxton Miller the week, the mobility and footwork of Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase were things Penn State couldn't adjust to on Saturday.
The Illini quarterback, who hasn't run as much this season as in years past, was his team's leading rusher with 35 yards on eight carries. It wasn't much in terms of production, but the threat of Scheelhaase running gave him the time to throw all over the field against a cautious Lions defense.
Penn State didn't sack Scheelhaase until the final play of regulation, and next week at Minnesota it will be facing a pair of quarterbacks who both like to move the pocket and run the ball.
Hackenberg Got His Groove Back
What a difference a week—and a weak defense—makes.
Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg had the worst game of his short career last week at Ohio State, even getting pulled in the second half because of his ineffectiveness and the blowout nature of the contest.
But he was back to his old (or young?) productive self against Illinois, completing 20 of 32 passes for 240 yards and throwing the game-winning TD in overtime. His 14-yard scoring pass on 3rd-and-11 to Kyle Carter was the epitome of poise under pressure, as Hackenberg seemed to embrace the moment.
Hackenberg even added some nifty footwork to his repertoire, juking out Illinois LB Jonathan Brown en route to a 9-yard TD run early in the second quarter.
Are Penalties Suddenly a Problem?
Penn State came into the Illinois game with just 27 penalties called against it through seven games.
The Nittany Lions were flagged 11 times against the Fighting Illini for 95 yards.
The most critical flag came as time expired in the first half. The Lions forced Nathan Scheelhaase to make a bad pass into the end zone with PSU up 14-0. But a roughing-the-penalty call gave Illinois an untimed down, and the Fighting Illini turned that into a field goal.
Those three points were the difference in the game until PSU tied the score with its own field goal with 41 seconds left in regulation.
Alex Butterworth Might Have a Career in Acting
It turned out not to have an affect on the game, as Penn State still ended up punting the ball away a few plays later, but Penn State punter Alex Butterworth sold a minor bump by an Illinois defender as best as you possibly can.
He spun as soon as the contact came, fell backwards and threw his hands in the air as he dropped to the ground.
The acting job resulted in a running-into-the-kicker penalty and an automatic first down.
It would have made most soccer players proud.
Complacency Can Be an Issue
Penn State's first two drives went for 24 plays and 166 yards, leading to a quick 14-0 lead. The third drive was a 10-play march that resulted in a missed field goal.
The Nittany Lions' next four possessions, though, were duds—three punts and a turnover on downs—that allowed Illinois to get back into the game.
It wasn't that Illinois did anything special on defense; rather, it looked like PSU felt its 14-0 lead was comfortable and, for some reason, failed to keep its foot on the gas pedal.
That might not work against better Big Ten teams.
Bill O'Brien Holds a Grudge
Bill O'Brien had just become head coach at Penn State when Illinois made headlines with its overt attempt to recruit PSU players in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
O'Brien won't acknowledge it publicly, but judging by a few instances on Saturday, he may still be seething over that perceived slight.
Several times in the first half O'Brien chose to go for it on fourth down in situations where going for a field goal seemed wise. It was as if by not kicking he wanted to send a message to Illinois and head coach Tim Beckman about those recruiting tactics, even though overall the playcalling felt relatively conservative for the Nittany Lions.
The Season's Stretch Run Will Be Nerve-Racking
Penn State fans, if they haven't already, by the end of November will have developed ulcers.
So it goes for the fanbase of a team that hasn't managed to win (or lose, for that matter) consecutive games since opening with a record of 2-0.
Since then it's been a home loss to UCF, a blowout win over Kent State, a bad loss at Indiana, a thrill-ride of a victory over Michigan, then the Lions' blowout loss to Ohio State, the worst defeat for the Penn State program in more than a century.
Then this one against Illinois—a game that, on paper, shouldn't have been this close.
Penn State is at Minnesota next week before getting Purdue and Nebraska at home and then ending up at Wisconsin. Expect more of this roller-coaster season and have some Tums handy.
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