Despite a shaky first half that felt all too familiar, Penn State remains unblemished with Ohio State looming. The No. 10-ranked Nittany Lions handled Illinois 63-24 Friday night at Memorial Stadium, moving their record to 4-0 on the young season.
Miles Sanders rushed for 200 yards on 22 carries, and Trace McSorley accounted for 252 yards and 3 touchdowns as the Nittany Lion offense exploded for 591 total yards.
And yet, the 28-point favorites were locked in a close one. Penn State led 21-17 at halftime and went down after Illinois opened the third quarter with a nine-play, 75-yard scoring series.
But Sanders took over and the Nittany Lion defense showed up, putting a damper on Illinois’ upset bid.
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Player of the game
Miles Sanders: Sanders had solid performances before. He scored the game-winner against Appalachian State. He posted his first career 100-yard performance in his hometown return at Pitt. But this was something different. This was Sanders’ breakout performance.
Illinois had no answer for Saquon Barkley’s successor. Sanders finished an average of 9.1 yards per carry, found the end zone 3 times and restored order in the third quarter with a 48-yard scoring scamper.
Penn State’s offensive line should get plenty of credit. Ryan Bates, Steven Gonzalez, Michal Menet, Connor McGovern and Will Fries opened holes all night for Sanders to run through. But the back’s power, decisiveness and willingness to fight through contact deserve the most praise.
Number that mattered
174: That was Illinois’ rushing yardage in the first half. On 22 carries. As much as Sanders and Penn State could run at will, the Illini could do the same. Lovie Smith’s squad averaged 7.9 yards per carry in the first half with seven runs of 10 yards or more. Reggie Corbin, who finished with 87 rushing yards, broke a 51-yarder that left Cam Brown, Nick Scott and John Reid grasping at air.
Penn State’s front seven looked ragged, as it did two weeks ago at Pitt when it allowed 214 yards in the first half. The Nittany Lions’ front-seven rebounded after that, letting up just 72 yards on 58 rushing attempts in the next six quarters. But Brent Pry’s unit reverted back to its old form. It was an uninspiring half to say the least.
Juwan Johnson: McSorley’s No. 1 target entering the 2018 season, a lot was expected of Johnson — and through three games, he failed to live up to the hype. But he made up for it on Saturday.
Johnson had 4 catches on 4 targets for 51 yards, including a fourth-quarter touchdown catch that allowed Penn State fans to breathe a sigh of relief. On third-and-12 from Illinois’ 16-yard line — up 28-24 at the start of the final period — McSorley stepped up in the pocket and zipped a pass to Johnson in the middle of the end zone. McSorley’s ball was a bit behind his target, but Johnson snared it.
It was just his second career touchdown catch. His first? Last year’s winner at Iowa. Yet again, Johnson stepped up in a big moment.
The Buckeyes: Penn State outscored its non-conference opponents 159-54. Save for an upset scare against App State, the Nittany Lions have had it pretty easy through four games. That will change next week. Penn State-Ohio State — a game that could decide a spot in the College Football Playoff — is days away.
The Buckeyes navigated their early-season slate without Urban Meyer, who was suspended for the first three games for his involvement in the Zach Smith domestic abuse saga. In those contests, Ohio State beat Oregon State, Rutgers and TCU by a combined score of 169-62. The matchup between Penn State and Ohio State could be one between a pair of top-10 squads. And maybe — just maybe — ESPN’s College GameDay will return to Happy Valley.