Tate | Illini not ready for big stage just yet

Tate | Illini not ready for big stage just yet

For the first time in two seasons, Illinois used some fancy offensive schemes to grab the second-half lead on a Big Ten opponent — however briefly — Friday night.

But Lovie Smith's Illini aren't quite ready for prime-time.

They weren't ready for the bright lights of Chicago when they were outscored 18-0 in the fourth quarter by South Florida. And they were badly outclassed as Penn State turned a 24-21 deficit into a 63-24 embarrassment at Memorial Stadium.

Oh, and it was such a marvelous evening ... literally pleading for an end to what is now an unlucky, 13-game Big Ten losing streak. But Penn State wasn't buying in and, even as Illinois stayed in touch for three quarters, there was never the slightest hint that the home forces could restrain quarterback Trace McSorley and pile-driving Miles Sanders (200 yards, three TDs).

It started so well

No, Penn State's 591 yards speak for themselves. They dragged and evaded Illini tacklers from the start, and McSorley's passes found wide open receivers throughout.

And so, with the help of late Illini turnovers and breakdowns, the Nittany Lions put a crushing end to what had begun as a spectacular night ... a crackling tailgate that rekindled an enthusiastic buzz, the Marching Illini in an eye-popping pre-game performance behind the Red Grange statue, the Illini Hall of Famers drawing a long line a autograph seekers (Lou Henson's first signing was on a man's shirt cuff).

The Friday game, so often criticized for interfering with the preps, provided a national TV setting that drew Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and national wordsmiths Pat Forde and Adam Rittenberg among other celebrities.

And for a time, Illini fans in the fired-up crowd of 34,704 were allowed to dream with the help of slashing runs by Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein, and a 24-21 lead stemming from a 17-yard TD reverse-pass from erstwhile QB Trenard Davis to Ricky Smalling.

Still plenty of leaks

The finish was too gruesome to review. The dam broke.

With Illini miscues contributing, the Lions racked up three TDs in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, thus diminishing the earlier showings of the Illini ground attack.

But in the midst of disappointment, there are signs that this won't turn into 2017.

Smith has pulled key players off their three-game suspensions, allowing Carmoni Green to lead the receivers with four receptions, and giving the secondary a boost with the return of Nate Hobbs and Bennett Williams.

With a week off, look for Jamal Milan to return at defensive tackle. And while freshman M.J. Rivers II showed positive signs for the future, offensive coordinator Rod Smith will re-evaluate the quarterback situation with a healthy AJ Bush Jr. in mind.

Still, a huge problem persists. Even with sophomore end Bobby Roundtree making a 12-tackle showing Friday, the Illini were once again pushed around up front and picked apart in the secondary.

The good news is that next foe Rutgers has similar shortcomings, and the Oct. 13 date with Purdue will offer the added incentive of homecoming. Perhaps Illinois can shake off the fourth-quarter blues against teams of their own level.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com