Penn State struggles against Big Ten’s worst defense in 16-14 loss to Illinois
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — James Franklin dejectedly sat hunched over on a chair at the end of the tunnel leading from the Memorial Stadium field to its visitor’s locker room. Penn State’s coach shook his head slowly, shrugged his shoulders disbelievingly and rolled his eyes up to the dank concrete roof.
What he was chatting about with Nittany Lions athletic director Sandy Barbour in the late-autumn chill couldn’t be heard, but presumably it was related to what was arguably PSU’s most embarrassing defeat of the program’s sanctions era. One that he’d just presided over.
“Not a good day,” Franklin would say to the media minutes later about a 16-14 loss to perennial Big Ten doormat Illinois.
“We didn’t play well. … If you don’t play well, you’re going to have a hard time. What were the ingredients? I don’t know.”
Even when going against the Big Ten’s worst defense, Penn State’s powerless offense had no chance to overcome free points given away by the Lions special teams.
Their stout defense suffered another late-game letdown, too.
David Reisner’s third field goal of the game, from 36 yards with 8 seconds to play, lifted Illinois to the upset. The Illini (5-6, 2-5) entered having lost five of six and 26 of their previous 28 conference games.
“A lot of things went into today,” Franklin said. “We’ve probably been asking for this all year long the way we’ve been playing, and it caught up to us today.”
Penn State’s defense allowed the Illini to drive down the field quickly when they took over at their own 28 with 1:48 left. Passes to Mike Dudek and Marchie Murdock and a 16-yard run by Josh Ferguson set up Illinois inside the PSU 20, leading to the winning field goal.
“You want to get a stop,” defensive end Brad Bars said. “They get a couple plays right off the bat, and that was tough to rebound from.”
Illinois entered the game with two field goals all season. Earlier, Reisner made from 28 and 25 yards but missed from 50 with 3:29 left.
That was one “stop” from a PSU defense that ranks among the top four in the FBS in most major categories. It mostly did its job: Illinois was held to 283 yards, 68 rushing.
The Lions offense, however, gave Illinois one last chance. Needing a couple of first downs to run out the clock, Penn State went three-and-out for the third time in five second-half possessions.
As strong as its defense has been, PSU lost for the third time this season in which it held a lead during the fourth quarter or overtime.
“We pride ourselves on being one of the best defenses out there,” defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said, “and it’s just disappointing when we can’t make the plays to seal the game.”
His workload increased because of an injury to Bill Belton, Akeel Lynch had 137 rushing yards on a career-high 28 carries. His 47-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter gave PSU a 14-10 lead, but the Illini drove inside the PSU 35 on each of its final three possessions.
Facing one of the worst statistical defenses in the country, Penn State continued its season-long struggles scoring and running the ball, proving last week’s 30-point, 254-yard rushing performance against Temple was an aberration.
PSU (6-5, 2-5) had just 265 yards, scoring only on Lynch’s run and on its first possession of the game when Christian Hackenberg hit Chris Godwin for an 18-yard score.
Hackenberg was 3 for 3 for 33 yards on that first drive but finished 8 for 16 for a career-low 93 yards.
Playing against a defense that had entered having allowed 329.8 rushing yards per game in Big Ten play, Lions running backs couldn’t get much going until Lynch’s long touchdown run 83 seconds into the fourth quarter.
After taking a 7-0 lead 6:36 in, the Lions missed a chance to take a bigger lead when a promising drive that had been kept alive by a 32-yard run on a fake-punt run by Bars stalled inside the 5, and holder Chris Gulla couldn’t handle a field-goal snap.
Two of the Illini’s three scoring drives were aided by mistakes by the Lions’ special teams. In a low-scoring game not unlike almost every other one Penn State has played this season, the unit directly or indirectly cost Penn State a swing of 13 points:
• Gulla dropped the snap on what was going to be a 21-yard PSU field-goal attempt.
• Evan Schwan jumped offsides on what was to be an Illinois punt with less than two minutes to play in the first half. The Ilini scored its only touchdown soon after.
• When Illinois kicked off into a heavy, sustained wind to begin the second half, the ball died and landed outside the PSU 20. Illinois fell on the live ball and kicked a 28-yard field goal within 2 1⁄2 minutes.
“We’ve got some things we’ve got to get cleaned up as a whole,” Franklin said.