Penn State vs. Illinois: Gameday Grades
Penn State signal-caller Christian Hackenberg posted one of his most efficient performances of his young career. The freshman went 20-for-32 with 240 yards and an overtime touchdown pass to Kyle Carter, which proved to be the winning score for the Nittany Lions.
Prior to that, Hackenberg led his team on his second game-tying drive of the season, which included a 39-yard heave to Allen Robinson, and was capped by a 35-yard Sam Ficken field goal.
Hackenberg also carried the ball for a nine-yard score in the second quarter to put Penn State up 14-0.
Running Backs: A-
Running back Bill Belton became the first Nittany Lion, since Larry Johnson rushed for 279 yards vs. Michigan State in 2002, to post a 200- plus yard performance with his 201 yards on Saturday. He served as the bulk of Penn State’s offense, as he carried the ball 36 times, one of which was a five-yard scamper to take a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
Despite his performance Belton gave up a late game fumble on the one- yard line that almost cost his team the game.
Zach Zwinak carried the ball six times for 25 yards.
Receivers/Tight Ends: B+
There were not many receivers involved Saturday, but Penn State junior Allen Robinson dominated with an 11 catch, 165-yard performance. No other receiver had more than two grabs.
Tight end Kyle Carter only hauled in one reception, but that catch proved to be the difference in the game, as it was the 15-yard game winning score tossed by Christian Hackenberg in overtime.
Offensive Line: A+
The Penn State offensive line had a stellar performance as they made a huge push in the running game which was evident by Belton’s 201 rushing yards and the Nittany Lions 250 total rushing yards. Not only were they proficient in the running game, but they also protected Christian Hackenberg to allow him to pass for 240 yards.
Defensive Line: C+
Penn State’s defensive line did a good job stopping the run, in holding Illinois to only 90 yards. The issue for the defensive line was in pass rushing. There was little pressure on Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and it allowed him to pass for 321 yards. Scheelhaase is a shifty guy, with excellent escape skills, so the line naturally would not completely contain him, but overall there was not enough pressure on the Illinois quarterback.
Junior linebacker Mike Hull had a career high 13 tackles and senior linebacker Glenn Carson contributed 11 tackles, seven of which were solo. The linebackers did a solid job stopping the run as the Fighting Illini only rushed for 90 yards as a team. Stopping the pass proved to be the most difficult for the Penn State defense as a whole.
Defensive Backs: C-
The biggest reason Scheelhaase was able to pass for 321 yards and a score, was the poor play of the Penn State secondary. Illinois receivers were getting open, fairly easily. Three Illinois receivers went for over 60 yards. The bright spot for the Nittany Lion’s secondary were their two opportunistic interceptions, the last of which, by Ryan Keiser, sealed the win in overtime.
Special Teams: B
Sam Ficken went 1-for-2 on field goals but ultimately made the one that was crucial for his team with his 35-yard game tying field goal with 47 seconds remaining in regulation.
Alex Butterworth had one of his better punting performances as he landed two of his three punts inside the 20.
Nittany Lions head coach Bill O’Brien called a solid and balanced game this week. On the offensive side the coaching staff focused slightly more on the run, which proved effective in the 250 total yards.
O’Brien did not ask his freshman quarterback to do too much and called plays that put him in the best position to succeed. The play calling on the defensive side was often suspect and allowed Illinois receivers to get too open, too often.
Penn State started the game out strong, going up 14-0 to begin the contest. However they were not able to maintain as they allowed the Fighting Illini’ to score 17 unanswered until the fourth quarter. The front seven performed well in the run game but the defense as a whole suffered against the pass.
Something must be said once again about the poise shown by Christian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions team when their backs were against the wall, not once but twice, in the fourth quarter.
John Patterson is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.