Illini show promise but collapse late against Nittany Lions

Illini show promise but collapse late against Nittany Lions

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois needed to engineer comebacks in each of first two games. Start slow, finish better was the theme through wins against Kent State and Western Illinois.

Illinois' trip to Chicago switched the narrative. A better start against South Florida had the Illini in position to win that game at Soldier Field until the Bulls' fourth-quarter rally. Friday night's game against No. 10 Penn State played out in similar fashion. The rally was just bigger.

Illinois led Penn State in the third quarter. A trick-play touchdown pass from Trenard Davis to Ricky Smalling put the Illini up 24-21 just before the midway point. But it was all downhill from there.

The Illinois offense, buoyed again by its run game early, stalled out. Penn State's simply kicked into overdrive. Six straight touchdowns and 35 fourth-quarter points saw the Nittany Lions ultimately run away with a 63-24 victory in front of a Memorial Stadium crowd that started at 34,704 and emptied out quickly as the game got away from the Illini.

"The fight that we showed throughout — hanging in their early on — was positive," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "There's some things to build on. We are getting better as a team, but we're not ready to play 60 minutes yet. ... When you get yourself in position like that at home and have momentum, you've got to be able to finish the job. We wore down at the end."

The vibe at Memorial Stadium was a little different Friday night. Illinois keeping pace with a top-10 team offensively kept the fan base invested. The Illini players could feel the difference.

"You could definitely feel the energy in the stadium and the energy on the sideline," Illinois redshirt sophomore center Doug Kramer said. "We went into that game thinking we could beat them. We had belief. It's definitely a lot different. You can feel things starting to turn. You can feel energy around here."

Illinois just hasn't quite fully turned the corner. The Illini managed just 166 yards of total offense in the second half after its best first 30 minutes of the season. Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein's combined 160 rushing yards by the end of the game was actually a yard less than they had in the first half.

Penn State didn't match its first half effort, either — totaling 267 yards of total offense after 324 in the first half — but the Nittany Lions found the end zone. Repeatedly.

"I just feel like we didn't execute and we gave the game up with penalties," said Illinois sophomore defensive end Bobby Roundtree, who led the team with 12 tackles. "We just gave them the game at the end. It's very frustrating because we're putting our all in the beginning of the game, and we just gave the game up at the end."

The big plays are what concerned Smith the most. Penn State running back Miles Sanders led the Nittany Lions' offense with 22 carries for 200 yards and three touchdowns. He broke a 48-yard score in the third quarter — the first of the six unanswered touchdowns Penn State used to turn a close game into a rout. Those other five touchdowns included a 21-yard touchdown pass from Trace McSorley to KJ Hamler and a 61-yard touchdown run by Ricky Slade.

"I think it's pretty simple," Smith said. "You can't give up big plays, and we're giving up too many long runs. Giving up those long runs is what's tough to take."

Illinois' quest for a full 60-minute effort continues into its off week. Redshirt senior guard Nick Allegretti said it starts as soon as the Illini hit the practice field.

"It starts there — Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — putting in the work so when it comes to the game we're ready," he said. "Practice is very hard, and sometimes at practice there are little lapses."

The responsibility for keeping Illinois' energy and spirits high even as games slip away around them, Allegretti added, lies with the captains and seniors.

"Football games are going to go bad," Allegretti said. "They're going to be good and bad throughout the game. We have to keep the team up, keep the sideline up. I think we let that slide."

Kramer said Illinois will evaluate both "halves" of Friday's game equally. The positives from the first three quarters give the Illini a better idea of what the type of team they can be this season. The fourth quarter shows how much work there's still left to do.

"We have to take the things that we did well — move on with those — and look at the things we didn't do well in the fourth quarter and end of the third quarter and we've got to change those," Kramer said. "We've got to figure out how to play four quarters of football because I still don't think we've done that yet."