Shortly before kickoff at Memorial Stadium, Brandon Bell observed as a few of his fellow linebackers ran through drills.
Bell was there for moral support. In a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt, Bell gave true freshman Jason Cabinda a high five, then approached Nyeem Wartman for a half-hug. It’d be up to them and senior Mike Hull to backup Penn State’s defensive line against Illinois. Due to an unspecified injury, Bell sat out his first game since earning a starting spot late last season.
And while Cabinda was solid, making five tackles and contributing on one for a loss, Penn State wasn’t able to augment it’s pass rush with its linebackers as has been a hallmark all season. Instead, Penn State played a more conservative style and Illinois quarterback Reilly O’Toole had more time than signal callers have had in the past.
Cornerback Jordan Lucas, who blitzed once from his position, said Bell’s absence wasn’t the reason for Penn State’s 16-14 loss. But the sophomore’s speed and aggressive style would’ve undoubtedly helped, Lucas said.
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“Brandon, he’s a great blitzer for us,” Lucas said. “Not having him, I don’t think it hurt us a lot but he would’ve been one of our strengths on the defense. And he has been this whole season.”
Without Bell in the lineup, linebackers coach Brent Pry had to shuffle his personnel. Mike Hull remained in the middle. Wartman moved into Bell’s usually strongside position and Cabinda played the weak side.
Penn State coach James Franklin expressed regret that Bell was unable to play. He appeared to suffer a shoulder injury against Temple although he returned for that game. But there was much more ailing the Penn State defense — a unit that had been so good and consistent all season — on Saturday.
Primarily, Penn State’s tackling was questionable for much of the afternoon. A few Nittany Lions had a chance to bring down Illinois running back Josh Ferguson on his team’s final drive. Instead, Ferguson popped through Penn State defenders for a 16-yard gain that made David Reisner’s go-ahead field goal much easier.
Even when a Penn State defender threw a shoulder and failed to make the stop, a second defender came in and threw another shoulder.
O’Toole completed a pass to Mike Dudek along the sideline in the fourth quarter. Lucas flew up and shouldered him. While Lucas slowed him down, Dudek kept his feet moving and picked up two more yards before Wartman arrived and blasted him out of bounds — with a shoulder. It was a six-yard gain on first down.
“We definitely left a lot of plays out there where we didn’t wrap up and they got extra yards,” Lucas said. “You think about some of those drives and you’re like, ‘Man, what really could’ve happened during this game?’ But you can’t go back in time. You have to just play the next downs.”
To Franklin, all the shoulder-only tackles are signs of fatigue.
“I think that was a factor, but there’s some other things that we have to take responsibility of,” Franklin said. “We’re throwing shoulders. We’re not wrapping. We’re throwing shoulders and going for big hits and we’re not fundamentally sound right now in tacking. We’ve gotten away with it for most of the year, but yeah, I don’t think there’s any doubt that this time of the year the way our roster is we’re getting worn down, especially on defense.”
Maybe it was pride talking, but some of Penn State’s players disagreed.
“We’ve got a couple of guys that haven’t played a full season,” senior captain C.J. Olaniyan said. “Out here today, we just didn’t make enough plays to win the game. … I’ve been around for a long time so I’m used to playing a full season. Once the season starts, you never feel 100 percent.”
Wartman called the poor tackling a “mindset and preparation” issue.
They have one more week to try and return to form.