CHAMPAIGN — At this time a year ago, Illinois players were all smiles, running around the locker room wearing sunglasses with a “5” painted on one lense and a “0” on the other. The Illini were 5-0 and feeling groovy.
Confused looks and sad eyes filled Saturday’s locker room after Penn State’s 35-7 win in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
Remember, it was Penn State’s roster that was gutted after the NCAA sanctions levied in the offseason, not the team sporting the new blue helmets on a sun-kissed fall afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
“I haven’t been around this a whole bunch in my life, but it’s something that we’ve got to get corrected,” first-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “We’re trying to get everything corrected as best we can to make this football team and our football team is trying to get better.”
Illinois (2-3, 0-1 Big Ten) isn’t just losing games, it’s looking bad in the process.
The Illini had four major special teams mistakes — in the first quarter.
Illinois was called for eight penalties including two personal fouls, one of which resulted in the ejection of starting safety Earnest Thomas. Another personal foul was declined. Penn State (3-2, 1-0) was flagged twice.
“It’s going to be addressed, there’s no question about that,” Beckman said. “Those things will not be tolerated.”
Next: Trips to Wisconsin and Michigan in the next two weeks.
“We know we’re going to be playing some physical football teams here coming up and we’ve got to become a more physical football team and do what we need to do, plus stay healthy,” Beckman said.
Five times on Saturday, the Illini got the ball inside the Penn State 30-yard line. They scored one touchdown.
“We had those opportunities and that’s the most frustrating thing,” quarteback Nathan Scheelhaase (28 for 46, 270 yards, two INTs) said. “We had opportunities to score the way that they were scoring. They were just able to finish when they got down in the score zone. That’s something that we’ve got to take care of.”
A week after turning the ball over six times, Illinois gave it away three times leading to 14 Penn State points.
And though much has changed at Penn State in the last 10 months, the brand of football the Nittany Lions played Saturday had a familiar look: a bruising defense and the offense marched the ball down the field methodically.
“I think we need a lot of improvement in all categories,” Beckman said. “I’m not going to point my finger, when we lose, it’s everybody, myself most of all. We have to get better.”