Tate: Surging Penn State + struggling Illini = trouble
Coming off last year's narrow 28-22 win against Northern Illinois and a 24-13 loss to No. 2 Ohio State, fast-rising Illinois never let a huge crowd of 107,000-plus get into the game at Happy Valley.
With NFL-bound standouts Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey combining for 20 tackles (Bussey had a 16-yard pick-six), the Illini held Penn State to seven first downs and 65 yards rushing. It was a 33-13 rout, with Nathan Scheelhaase completing 15 of 19 passes and Mikel Leshoure chewing up 119 yards on the ground.
To which Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning responds:
"We don't have a time machine. We can't go back. Today is so full of issues that we can only worry about today. Those past experiences are gone forever. We can only go forward and do our best."
It's one year later, and Penn State is 4-0 in the Big Ten and a slight favorite. Like Illinois earlier, nobody really knows the Nittany Lions' potential because they got here by winning close ones against so-so rivals. They made a last-ditch fourth and 1 to top Temple 14-10, eked past Indiana 16-10, broke Iowa's spell 13-3, edged Purdue 23-18 and blanked Northwestern in the second half to overcome a 24-20 deficit and win 34-24.
The common thread: defense. Rock-solid defense. Penn State is at or near the top in Big Ten defensive pass-and-run stats while giving up 13 point per game. And finally, after seven games of rotating quarterbacks, coach Joe Paterno has settled on Scranton, Pa., junior Matt McGloin over last year's starter, Rob Bolden.
So, they're smiling (but nervous) again in Happy Valley as the Nittany Lions wade into a brutal season-ending schedule that begins with Illinois and moves on to Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Coming to their defense
Reflecting on Saturday's 21-14 disappointment at Purdue, Koenning said:
"I'm not going to say we were on fire and electric, but I watched 67 plays and I didn't see loafing. We missed a guy in the flat, and they scrambled away from a sack and converted a big third and 21. We had practiced the tunnel screen (a 4-yard TD). And then we didn't respond when our punt was blocked. It was 21-0 and the game could have gone to a really bad place, but we fought back and held them to 75 yards in the second half.
"But stats are for losers. After two early stops, we gave up two long drives, and we can't let that happen."
Turning back to Penn State, Koenning said:
"We haven't cracked any codes. They're good with bootlegs and play-action passes. They keep more guys in for protection, and their crossing patterns put a lot of pressure on the secondary. Galen Hall is an excellent offensive coach. We have a lot of mutual friends, and they all speak highly of him."
Hall, the former Florida head coach (1984-89), has been calling Penn State plays since 2004 with Paterno's approval. The defensive coordinator, Tom Bradley, has been on the staff since 1979. It is an entrenched staff, the UI having tried to hire line coach Larry Johnson as defensive coordinator, only to be turned down.
Paterno, as CEO, is becoming accustomed to coaching from the press box.
Stuck in neutral
The unanswered question for Illinoisans is what happened to Paul Petrino's attacking unit?
For a stretch of 13 games, during which the Illini went 10-3, the Illini averaged 38.7 points. Then suddenly, in the last two games against Ohio State and Purdue, the Illini didn't score a point until the final 6:22 and 8:12 of those contests. That's 50-plus minutes in consecutive games without a point. No field goals by one of the nation's most accurate kickers. No points.
Has the line lost its punch? Is Leshoure's departure that devastating? Why isn't hard-blocking fullback Jay Prosch being used? Has Scheelhaase lost his edge?
It can't be laid at the feet of all-star candidate A.J. Jenkins. He leads the nation in receiving yards (987) and, even with defenses concentrating, his receptions measured 80 and 92 yards the last two weeks. And Scheelhaase overthrew him twice in the open at Purdue on what would have been huge gainers.
"A.J. could have had a lot more," Petrino said, "but it's not one guy or one thing. It's a missed block here or a mistake there. Maybe Leshoure made us look good. All I know is we're not going to panic. We just have to keep believing in what we're doing. Penn State's defense is designed to deny big plays, so our job is to put together some 10- and 12-play drives ... control the ball and keep our defense rested."
And above all, put up some early points.
In the four Big Ten games, Illinois fell behind Northwestern 14-7 and Indiana 10-0, and it didn't approach the Ohio State and Purdue goal lines until it was too late.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.