Penn State

Illinois Exploits Penn State's Team Weaknesses

It's a good thing I didn't plan a big party after yesterday's game to celebrate my husband Terry's 250th game in a row (see Saturday's Centre Daily Times PSU Memories column here or reproduced in the below post).  

If anyone had stuck around after the game long enough to go to such a party, it would have felt like a funeral.  It was best to keep it a low-key day and celebrate another time.

Two friends from State College joined us at the game and for a simple tailgate of subs, chips, and cookies after the game, courtesy of a run to Wegman's that morning.

On a warmer than usual October day, the weather was delightful.  Our mood, after this game, was not so grand.

The loss to Illinois just sucked the air and spirit out of Beaver Stadium.  

It turned what should have been a great day of celebration and alumni reunions into one where all we could do was wonder what the heck had just happened.

I don't know why we didn't anticipate this.  It might have something to do with the fact that Illinois has never won a game at Beaver Stadium.  We also figured that since it was Homecoming, the Penn State football team would be motivated.  Even if they fell behind, they would rally.

We weren't expecting a blow-out, but we were expecting a win. 

But as we were walking out of the Iowa game last week, I had turned to Terry and said, "You know, we could go 0-8 in the Big Ten this year."  I couldn't articulate why, but I was very uncomfortable with how we lost to Iowa.  I had been thinking that this is a team that is in serious trouble. 

Terry told me I was too pessimistic, that the Penn State team isn't that bad.  We had just lost to a very good Iowa team.

So I spent all week convincing myself that Penn State wasn't as bad as I feared.  I read a lot of blog articles from writers appealing to Penn State fans to be patient, it's a young team, there are injuries.  That we will get better, this isn't the year for a BCS bowl run, but we will be awesome in the future.

Possibly the most sensible comments I read were when you match up freshmen and sophomores against more conditioned and mature juniors, seniors, and fifth year seniors,  you're bound to make mistakes and suffer injuries.  And lose a few games.

My instincts, though, at Iowa, were based on the fact that I didn't see any improvement in the first five games.  

Like a broken record (I'm showing my age here) we had been stuck in a rut that played the same refrain from one game to the next.

Win or lose, we had no defensive intensity in the first half, and our young offense had made many red zone mistakes that prevented us from scoring more.

That rut became an even deeper groove against Illinois.

It was inevitable that a well coached Illinois team would figure out how to exploit our weaknesses, especially in the trenches of our not so solid defensive and offensive lines.

Not only did we have no defense in the first half, we didn't tighten up our defense in the second half.  We gave up 282 rushing yards, the highest this season and the most given up since Minnesota in 2004.  Time of possession was 38 minutes for Illinois, 22 minutes for Penn State.  Our already injured defense looked tired and not up to the task of holding back Illinois.

We couldn't move the ball.  It seemed too often running plays were called that didn't work on 1st and 2nd down, then predictable pass plays on 3rd down and long.

Our entire offense consisted of 7 total first downs and 235 yards of offense.  

Quarterback Rob Bolden knows how to bounce back.  After giving up a touchdown to Illinois on an errant pass, Bolden came back with a 1-play touchdown drive:  an 80-yard beauty of a pass to Derek Moye for a touchdown.  That was the only highlight pass of the day.   Other than that play, he looked like a true freshman.

But I'm not going to join the crowd who always calls for a replacement.  Bolden is exciting to watch.  He needs help from his offensive line!

After two exceptional special teams opportunities where Penn State recovered balls with great field position in the red zone, we were only able to muster 6 points on field goals.

Final score?  A dominating 33-13 win by Illinois, with the game virtually over by the end of the 3rd quarter.

And while not even the most optimistic of Penn State fans were thinking BCS bowl this year, we were kind of thinking that a 9-3 or 8-4 season would get us to a decent New Year's Day bowl.  Now we are all wondering if we will even get to a bowl game this year! 

Our record is now 3-3.  The talk in the stands was about whom we need to beat to not have a losing record and be 6-6. 

That's the new goal.

It's a good thing there's an off week this week.  They will have two weeks now to figure out whether it's a problem with the playbook, with execution, or with intangible factors like leadership.

Perhaps some of those nine defensive injuries will heal and some soul-searching will take place on both the defense and the offense.

The challenge for Joe Paterno and his assistant coaches is how to instill leadership, passion, and confidence in a team that is clearly struggling and appears right now to be out of its league in the Big Ten.

On to Minnesota longer a guaranteed win,  it's one of our best chances to instill some confidence in a team that desperately needs to win in the Big Ten.

We'll be there to support our team and see what happens!