Tate: How low can they go?
If you can paint a pretty face on this one, be my guest.
Penn State is supposed to be the beleaguered program. But on Saturday, the only sad sacks at Memorial Stadiuim were the Illini. And in less than a quarter, the one unit that had avoided disaster previously — special teams — joined the other two units in the doghouse.
Not even two minutes had elapsed when Penn State swarmed on a muffed punt by Tommy Davis, setting in motion a one-sided 35-7 Nittany Lions romp.
Last week, in a 52-24 loss to Louisiana Tech, six turnovers and secondary breakdowns led to the fans’ early withdrawal from Memorial Stadium. This time the problems were elsewhere, and between penalties (eight) and miscues, coach Tim Beckman hardly knows where to start.
Following Saturday’s fumbled punt, special teams kept messing up: (1) UI freshman V’Angelo Bentley struck Sam Ficken on a field goal try, giving the Nittany Lions a first down on the 3, (2) Penn State’s Evan Lewis shook free on a 26-yard punt return and (3) Illini Taylor Zalewski missed a 26-yard field goal try. On this day, the Illini returned to the last two years when they had arguably the worst special teams in the country.
Zalewski’s FG misfire marked one of three ventures inside the Penn State 10-yard line that netted zero points.
“We didn’t finish,” UI co-coordinator Chris Beatty said. “And we missed a fourth-and-1 sneak when it was 14-0 (at the Penn State 28). When those things happen, before you know it the game has changed.”
Perhaps at some point in future years, when Penn State’s 65-player limit and related sanctions have taken affect, Illinois may match the physical tenacity and self-assurance of this program.
But that wasn’t the case Saturday. The Nittany Lions’ defensive front penetrated from all sides, closing down the pocket on Nathan Scheelhaase’s pass attempts and limiting his movement. The Illini rushed for just 74 yards, 52 of it on a breakaway by Donovonn Young near the end of the first quarter.
And, true to their heritage, the Lions ruled with four veteran linebackers — Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Glenn Carson and Michael Yancich — who combined for 31 tackles, not to mention two interceptions by Mauti.
By contrast, Illinois started camp in Rantoul with four promising linebackers who, due chiefly to injuries, spent most of the day on the sideline while raw freshmen Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina played.
The visitors saw their opportunity with a series of off-tackle slants, their five running backs and QB Matt McGloin outrushing the Illini 212 to 74.
Return to form
Scheelhaase, who played just three of the season’s first 12 quarters, appears back in form. He absorbed one fearsome high-low tackle that sent him gasping to the sideline, but he returned after one play. He ran with former abandon when he could find room.
As happened last week, his early passes were weak and underneath the coverage. But he began to open up as the game progressed, and Illinois twice appeared poised to cut into a 14-0 deficit only to come up short. After it reached 21-0, Scheelhaase pushed Illinois to the 4-yard line where his fourth-down pass was intercepted (and nearly returned for a touchdown).
It is noteworthy that in the final 33 minutes, 12 of his passes netted 10 yards or more, indicating a renewed willingness to push the ball downfield. The Illini caught the Lions napping on their lone TD, halfback Josh Ferguson taking a lateral and pitching 22 yards to an unguarded Spencer Harris in the third quarter.
“We are not playing well, and it’s all three phases,” Beckman said. “We have to regroup. The penalty situation is not good. We’re not getting it done.”
UI fans, now accustomed to leaving early, won’t be asked to return until Oct. 27 when the Illini host homecoming against Indiana, the only Big Ten team less impressive than they are.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.