Tweaked Illinois run game flummoxes Penn State football in ugly loss
The package Illinois coach Bret Bielema and his staff installed this week to attack Penn State football's depleted run defense is — appropriately — named Barge.
It includes seven offensive linemen, two tight ends and almost zero nuance. The Illini elected to run the ball right at Penn State and bet that the Nittany Lions couldn't stop them.
They were right.
The Fighting Illini rushed the ball 67 times for 357 yards — 5.3 yards per carry — on their way to a stunning 20-18 victory inside Beaver Stadium Saturday afternoon.
"I thought for us, it was a better matchup if we got bigger," Bielema said.
As the Illini got bigger, so did Penn State's problems.
Without sidelined star defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, the Nittany Lions totally ceded control of the line of scrimmage to the Illini, who scored only 10 points in regulation but forced the Penn State defense to spend over 36 minutes on the field.
"PJ has played a lot of football for us here and is a captain for us," Penn State head coach James Franklin said. "He's been a tremendous player and a big part of our defense, so not having him factored in, there's no doubt about it."
The Illini had little problem breaking into the second and third levels of the Penn State defense. Seven of the eight Penn State players with at least six tackles in the game were defensive backs or linebackers, with the lone exception being defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, who once again played his heart out when the Nittany Lions needed him to. But it wasn't enough.
Safety Jaquan Brisker felt the Nittany Lions frequently failed to use proper tackling fundamentals against Illinois running back Chase Brown, noting that the Nittany Lions failed to wrap up on several occasions.
Brown finished the day with a monstrous total of 223 yards on 33 attempts, an average of 6.8 yards per carry.
The explanations for the failure to control the run game came from all angles.
Defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo thought the Illini did well disguising their looks out of that Barge set. Jesse Luketa disagreed, noting that he felt the Illini rushing attack was predictable based on how they lined up.
Like Brown, the reasons for the Nittany Lions' difficulties defending the run proved difficult to tackle.
What is clear is this: The extra man on the line of scrimmage was a new wrinkle for the Penn State defense to digest.
"They did a good job with that package," defensive end Nick Tarburton said. "Going in, we know they had a tackle-over deal, but they ended up having a whole other tackle, too. I think it was like five or six to a side. Overall, their game plan was impressive. Hat's off to them with the game plan."
For Bielema and his staff, the logic was simple.
In this magestically nonsensical clash inside Beaver Stadium that was ugly from the start, it was go big or go home.
"When you're watching film, you can see how teams play against bigger people or against littler people," Bielema said. "We just felt, the bigger we got, we felt we could dictate what we were going to get out of them a little bit better."
• Talk about this article inside The Lions Den
• Watch our videos and subscribe to our YouTube channel
• Sign up for our daily newsletter and breaking news alerts
• Learn more about our print and digital publication, Blue-White Illustrated
• Follow us on Instagram
• Like us on Facebook