The only way Penn State would escape Memorial Stadium with a win Saturday was to connect on a miracle, hook-and-ladder play.
But the last-second gimmick — Christian Hackenberg tossed to Geno Lewis who threw to Akeel Lynch who lobbed to DaeSean Hamilton — went nowhere. It was a theme for much of the afternoon.
Penn State’s offense did what it does — or doesn’t do — all day, special teams miscues let the Nittany Lions down and propped the Illinois Fighting Illini up time and time again and Penn State’s mighty defense, which had tortured opponents all season long, couldn’t cover for the team-wide futility.
The Nittany Lions (6-5, 2-5 Big Ten) paid for their ineptitude with a 16-14 loss to the Illini (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) that had won just two conference games under coach Tim Beckman in nearly three full seasons entering Saturday’s showdown.
“Obviously we didn’t play well enough in all three phases to get the outcome we wanted,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Offensively, we played about the way we’ve played all year long. … Our defense, time in and time out, week after week has really kind of had our back. Today they weren’t able to do that. We weren’t able to put consistent pressure on the quarterback, probably less than we have all year long. Our tackling was not good. Throwing shoulders, a lot of broken tackles, a lot of missed tackles, especially late in the game.”
Illini senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole relieved Wes Lunt and saved his best plays for late in the game. He connected with Mike Dudek and Marchie Murdock for gains of 25 and 17 yards on back-to-back plays to put kicker David Reisner in range for the go-ahead field goal with the wind at his back and just over 10 seconds to play.
Reisner added kicks of 28 and 25 yards earlier in the game and O’Toole threw a touchdown pass to tight end Matt LaCosse from one yard out in the second quarter.
Penn State’s offense, which entered the game ranked 116th out of 128 FBS teams, got off to a good start.
Hackenberg led a nine-play, 52-yard drive to open the game and found Chris Godwin slanting to the corner of the end zone to put Penn State ahead. Lynch scored the only other points for Penn State when he galloped 47 yards to the end zone, juking as he picked up blocks, early in the fourth quarter.
Lynch’s run put Penn State up 14-10 with 13:37 remaining. But the running back, Penn State’s only scholarship option at the position after Bill Belton left the game with a shoulder injury, also lost a fumble at midfield in the second quarter. It was the second time in as many games a Penn State back coughed up the ball.
Lynch was more interested in talking about his mistake than his touchdown, which he described as “a total team effort.” Lynch said the fumble was all on him and possibly eliminated a scoring opportunity. Those were rare to come by as the Nittany Lions entered the red zone just two times out of 13 possessions.
“We are frustrated in ourselves because we know what we’re capable of doing and it’s not improving,” Lynch said. “And that starts with me first and it starts with all of us. We know what we can do.”
Special teams didn’t help Penn State either and they began early.
Penn State’s offense marched down the field on its second possession but stalled after three-straight handoffs to Lynch in the red zone. Kicker Sam Ficken lined up to try a field goal from 21 yards out but holder Chris Gulla couldn’t handle the snap. Penn State turned the ball over on downs.
In the second quarter, Penn State’s defense had Illinois stopped at midfield but Evan Schwan jumped offsides to give the Illini a fresh set of downs. O’Toole led the Illini eight more plays to complete a 12-play drive that ended when he lobbed a pass to LaCosse.
“I think that was a big play, obviously. It was fourth and 4 and you’ve got a chance to get off the field and the two guys that are closest to the ball, both inside guys really, jumped offsides,” Franklin said. “That was a big play in the game, but there were a lot of plays. There wasn’t one specific reason.”
The second half started with another special teams issue, although it was more of a freak occurrence than a mistake, Franklin said.
Penn State was set to return the kickoff but the ball died in the wind at about the 20-yard line. It picked up backspin and bounced back away from the third level of Penn State’s return unit — Brad Bars and Garrett Sickels — and was recovered at Penn State’s 28 by Clayton Fejedelem. Reisner hit his first field goal five plays later.
“That was a tough play,” Bars said. “It’s just tough to find the ball. Out there, the ball just died on us.”
After Lynch’s touchdown run, Ficken kicked the ball out of bounds. The penalty set Illinois up at its own 35-yard line and O’Toole chipped away at Penn State’s defense going 5-for-6 for 32 yards on an 11-play drive that was kept alive by a seven-yard completion to Tyler White on fourth-and-one from Penn State’s 34. Penn State linebacker Nyeem Wartman was flagged for a hold on the play that tacked on an additional three yards and helped set Reisner up for his second kick. Reisner’s field goal pulled Illinois within a point with 8:43 left.
While Penn State’s defense had success against the less-mobile Lunt, the Nittany Lions couldn’t get to O’Toole. He was not sacked and had time to throw, especially to slot receiver Dudek who finished with 11 catches for 115 yards. None was bigger than the opening play of Illinois’ final drive.
Dudek split Penn State’s safeties and hauled in a bullet for 25 yards before Murdock got open along the sideline. Illinois running back Josh Ferguson picked up 16 more yards on the team’s next run. Penn State called its final timeout with 59 seconds to play.
When asked if his defense was tired after carrying so much of the load this season, Franklin didn’t hesitate.
“There’s no doubt,” he said.
The offense didn’t do much to ease the burden.
“I thought we had a pretty good game plan coming in,” Hackenberg said. “So I think it just goes back to execution, the common theme. We’ve got to consistently go out and execute.”