Penn State football report card: Grading the loss to Illinois
STATE COLLEGE -- Penn State saw its College Football Playoff hopes dashed on Saturday afternoon during an inexplicably poor performance throughout what was ultimately a 20-18 loss to Illinois.
The Nittany Lions had multiple chances to win the game but couldn't seal the deal, which has become an all too common theme in close games over the last few years.
"Obviously, we did not have our guys ready to play," head coach James Franklin said following the loss. "I think there was a difference between playing Iowa on the road and having that type of loss with the type of injuries we had going into our bye week.
"But at the end of the day, all that matters is we get the job done, and we did not today."
It's why the team is 5-2 ahead of next Saturday's primetime showdown at Ohio State.
Before we dive into that, let's hand out the grades from the Lions' latest loss.
Penn State had 108 yards and seven points after 15 minutes of play. It finished with 207 and 10 at the end of regulation, and 227 overall.
The Nittany Lions had hopes of having their run game carry the offense on a day when Sean Clifford was able to play but not do everything he normally can when healthy. As has been the case all season, though, that didn't work, as the team averaged 2.1 yards a carry, had just 62 rushing yards overall, and were stuffed numerous times near the goal line in overtime.
Another inept day for the ground game meant that Clifford and the aerial attack were going to have to thrive if Penn State was going to win, and it couldn't. The starting quarterback finished 19 of 34 for 165 yards and one early scoring strike to KeAndre Lambert-Smith, which was the lone highlight on a day that featured almost nothing but rushed throws that sailed high and wide or were dropped by open receivers.
There's not much else to say and no other grade to give here. Kudos to Clifford for gutting it out, but this was a nightmare pretty much from start to finish.
Brent Pry's group was clearly impacted by PJ Mustipher's absence in a way that maybe should have been predictable by wasn't discussed much before kickoff.
Illinois was not secretive about the fact that it was going to line up in loads of heavy packages and run, and it did so at will to the tune of 357 of its 395 yards. Chase Brown carried 33 times for 223 yards while Josh McCray added 142 on 24 carries. The pair could do virtually whatever they wanted more often than not because a combination of sloppy and overmatched play in the front seven provided little to no resistance.
The secondary did do its job, as Art Sitkowski had only 38 yards passing, and maybe this grade should be higher seeing that the defense held the Illini to only 10 points in regulation while forcing three turnovers and recording four sacks. That should be enough to win most days, but the offense only scored a trio of points off those turnovers and failed to capitalize otherwise, and that left the defense in a major lurch.
All told, Brent Pry's unit bent a lot but didn't exactly break, which is why it feels like this grade ought to be higher, even in defeat. It's just that they got no help from the offense and weren't good enough to win it on their own, as evidenced by safety Jaquan Brisker's dropped interception that would have sealed the game, among other things.
Special teams: B+
Jordan Stout made three field goals, kept Illinois' returners at bay, and punted well per the usual, but there's no overlooking his 40-yard miss in the third quarter when reviewing a two-point loss. It could have been the difference in there even being overtime at all.
Stout has mostly been reliable in all three facets this year, but misses could have cost the team a game sooner but didn't. This one wasn't the sole reason for losing, but it played a role, and the return game was silent yet again.
Penn State's inability to have a backup quarterback ready is a problem that pertains to this game and the season, so that plays a role here. So, too, does the fact that tight ends continue to drop passes, no one can block in the running game consistently, and the backs don't make enough plays to take the pressure off an ailing passer.
The Lions somehow exited the bye week entirely unprepared to stop Illinois' run-heavy scheme, even though there was no question that the game was never going to rest on Sitkowski's shoulders, and a lack of in-game adjustments allowed the Illini to keep running as much and as freely as they pleased. The offense, then, continuously returned to the same old bag of tricks that weren't going to work and played right into Illinois' hands more often than not.
Just an awful performance from top to bottom this week. Again, there's nothing else really to say here. The film shows it all. This team wasn't ready to play, and it paid dearly for it.
Maybe all these grades melded together don't necessarily equal an F, but what other label is there for one of the worst losses in program history?
James Franklin is a big believer in following a '1-0 mantra' throughout the course of a season, and that's fine and well, save for the fact that his program seems to struggle to do so after a loss.
Penn State has injury issues, but developmental and in-game problems make it an even worse reality than it already is.
With that said, there's simply no excuse when it comes to dropping a game at home against this Illinois team, regardless of who practiced when or how much, or at what tempo. It can't happen, but it somehow did despite numerous chances to win, and that's why these grades are what they are.
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