New Hampshire DB Jake Kiley Commits to Penn State
July 26, 2011 – | No Comment

States like New Hampshire are often overlooked by college recruiters scouring the northeast. With a population of a little over 1.3 million (barely 14.5% of the population of New York City), the talent pool in …

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Penn State/Illinois Gameday Blog

Submitted by on October 9, 2010One Comment

Penn State came out flat last week in Iowa City and never recovered. The 24-3 final score might be a bit deceiving–the Lions weren’t dominated by any stretch of the imagination–but as Bill Parcells famously said, “you are what your record says you are.” Right now, this is a 3-2 Penn State team that’s still looking to put together a complete performance. Putting aside the struggles in road games against truly superior opponents, this is a team that hasn’t looked great even in beating “cupcake” opponents.  This is make or break time for the Lions.

For the last time this season, I’m in the press box high above the field here at Beaver Stadium, and as always, I’ll be bringing you updates, reactions, and thoughts throughout the game.  We hope you’ll join us.

It’s homecoming. It’s beautiful out. It’s the last Penn State home game for three weeks. Who’s ready?

PREGAME:

Here’s what you need to know about this Illini team:

They’re not as bad as you think. Illinois has become something of a punchline in the Big Ten since their miracle Rose Bowl run in 2007, but Ron Zook knows he’s coaching to keep his job and his team has looked surprisingly competent in 2010.  They’re only 2-2, and yes, those two wins came against Northern and Southern Illinois, but they’ve kept it tight against Missouri and Ohio State, who enter this week a combined 9-0.  In fact, the Illini led at the half against the Tigers, 13-3, before falling apart in the second half of that week 1 matchup.  And I had the opportunity to watch their tilt with the Buckeyes last week, and was impressed with the tenacity of the Illini, especially on defense.  Martez Wilson is finally healthy and was all over the place last week, and Clay Nurse showed great pursuit off the edge.  If they come out as amped up this week, they could provide an early challenge to a Penn State team that’s struggled in first quarters this season.

They’ll try to establish the ground game. This is a run-first Illinois team, and it all starts with Mikel Leshoure. Rashard Mendenhall he’s not, but Leshoure is a tough, downhill runner who’s a load to bring down at 6-1, 230.  He’s been productive this season with 478 yards in 4 games, building off a 2009 campaign in which Leshoure averaged 6.8 yards per carry.  Freshman Nathan Scheelhaase isn’t necessarily a run-first QB, but expect to see plenty of read-option, if last week’s game plan is any indication.  He’s the team’s #2 runner, averaging 54 yards per game, and he’s been better with his legs than with his arm.

They have an awesome punter. Anthony Santella had been solid coming into this season–as a senior, he’d improved on his average each year of his career.  After an abysmal freshman campaign in which he was one of the worst punters in the country, Santella had developed into a competent punter. But the way he’s kicked the ball so far this year, Santella is making a case for the Ray Guy award as the nation’s top punter.  He’s netting 43.3 yards per punt, good for 3rd in the country and 1st in the Big Ten.  Last week, he was routinely booting 50-yarders–with good coverage–so winning the field position battle will be tough today for Penn State.

Three Questions for Penn State:

“Is this Penn State team really good?” That’s not my question, that’s Devon Smith’s. In the wake of yet another flat performance, against Iowa, Penn State held a players-only meeting last week, led by Ollie Ogbu, where they sought to answer that very question. How much of the Lions’ early-season struggles have been mental, and how much is simply due to an inexperienced team that’s still coming together?  Penn State has shot themselves in the foot with drops, missed tackles, and stupid mistakes, but those are blunders that a really good team doesn’t make.  The first quarter has been especially rough for Penn State–they’ve gotten down early in all but one of their games–and against teams like Alabama and Iowa, you can’t dig your way out of that hole.  This team has lacked a drive, a fire early that they’ll need to quench the upset hopes of the Illini.  But if that meeting–the first players-only meeting I can remember in a long time–can’t rally the troops, then maybe the answer to Devon’s question is ‘no.’

How much of a problem is the lack of depth? Though they’re still listed on the official depth chart as first-teamers, Jack Crawford and Bani Gbadyu have been ruled out of this one with injuries. Still unlisted on the chart–presumably still suspended–are Sean Stanley and Derrick Thomas.  That leaves just Eric Latimore, Pete Massaro, and Kevion Latham as scholarship ends on the roster today, and it bumps Shelton McCullough up to 3rd cornerback status.  Though inserting Fortt for Gbadyu may actually be “addition by subtraction,” Penn State’s become very thin at every defensive position but linebacker–but now even Mike Mauti’s banged up. One more injury could cripple a defense that’s already looked very fragile.  And on offense, Kevin Haplea’s been thrust into the starting lineup due to the injuries to Andrew Szczerba and Garry Gilliam. I’m not sure Penn State has a #4 tight end.

Is this the week for Evan Royster? After 56 yards last week, Royster enters the game just 128 yards away from Curt Warner’s school rushing record–and he’s looked much improved in the last two weeks. Don’t let that paltry yardage figure fool you, Royster did everything he could last week, as Penn State was forced to throw the ball almost all the time. Those 56 tough-earned yards came on 10 carries, and on half of those touches, he was hit before he could even get back to the line.  The OL has been this team’s weakest unit, and Royster’s had to change his style to fit this team.  Gone is the patient runner of years past, replaced by a slashing, aggressive new Evan Royster.  Illinois has struggled against the run–8th in the Big Ten–and if Penn State can get Royster the carries, he’s got a shot to set the record in front of a home crowd.

The good news: we’ve got a sellout. The corners of the upper decks in both the north and south end zones are filled, even as fans continue to file in from the parking lots. The bad news–the student section looks like its worst turnout of the season, and that’s a season marred by late arrivals and empty bleachers.  5 minutes from kick off, and it’s not even half full. Shameful.

FIRST QUARTER:

Penn State wins thetoss, but Joe, in typical Joe fashion, has his team defer. Anthony Fera’s kickoff isn’t his best–fielded at the 8–but the coverage is there. Nick Sukay lays a punishing hit and knocks the ball free, though Illinois recovers. On defense, it’s Nate Stupar starting for Mike Mauti, Khairi Fortt for Bani Gbadyu, and Eric Latimore at defensive end with Pete Massaro. But just when the Lions think they’ve forced a three-and-out, Ron Zook decides to roll the dice. From his own 29, facing a 4th and 1, Illinois goes for it, and picks up the first down. Playing with nothing to lose can pay off sometimes.

And Illinois gets the ball near midfield as a simple drag route over the middle picks up 18. Very soft zone for Penn State. Now it looks like Eric Latimore’s hurt, as Kevion Latham comes into the game. But the Penn State defense holds–as Malcolm Willis comes on in the nickel, replacing an injured Nick Sukay–as Ron Zook elects to punt this time, facing 4th and 2 from his own 48. Just when it looks like Anthony Santella’s pinned the Lions deep, the punt coverage lets it slip out of their grasp. Big break for Penn State, who would’ve started inside their own 3.

But Penn State can’t do anything–even after Evan Royster runs for 7 on first down.  An Anthony Fera punt would’ve set up Illinois at their own 24, but Jack Ramsey can’t hold on. Penn State will get the ball right back at the Illinois 23.   That’s one way to deal with a banged-up defense–just make sure they’re never on the field.  But Penn State’s red zone problems have loomed large this season, we’ll see if they can punch it in.  Evan Royster takes three handoffs and picks up exactly 10 yards to set up Penn State at the 13.  Penn State runs a little pitch to Silas Redd, and my god is he great in space.  Breaking tackles and weaving through traffic, Redd gets the Lions down to the 5. He’s not so good running between the tackles, though, and the Lions are looking at a 3rd and 2.  And once again, Penn State will have to settle for three. Rob Bolden overthrew Brett Brackett in the corner, and it wouldn’t have counted anyway, with a flag for illegal motion.  They’ll back the attempt up 5 yards after a false, start, but a 28 yarder is no problem for Collin Wagner. Not the ending to the drive that Penn State was looking for, but it’s Penn State 3, Illinois 0. Penn State’s red zone performance is no longer shockingly bad. It’s just bad.

Perhaps buoyed by their defensive stand, the Illinois offense is moving the ball exceptionally well. After passing for a first down, Nathan Scheelhaase took off for the first time, and broke contain, galloping for 28 before getting body-slammed by Drew Astorino. Then Mikel Leshoure pounds it inside and it takes a half dozen Lions to bring him down. Illinois takes a timeout, but not before they’re looking at a 1st and 10 from the Penn State 32. Mikel Leshoure seems to be giving this defense flashbacks of Trent Richardson–they can’t wrap him up. Now it’s the Illini threatening as the first quarter comes to an end–they’ll be set up at the 20 to start the 2nd.

First quarter thoughts: Another day, another slow start…though this one wasn’t nearly as bad. But for just the second time in, now, 6 games, the Lions will have a lead after the first quarter.  The defense is so thoroughly banged up that’s it’s tough to blame them, but once again it’s Illinois controlling the line of scrimmage. Scheelhaase hasn’t thrown much, but he’s had all day on those few attempts–and when he decided to scramble, there was nobody within 10 yards. Offensively, the red zone continues to be a point of concern, and Bolden doesn’t look sharp. To sum it up: yet another sluggish start.

SECOND QUARTER:

Penn State blitzes, but doesn’t get any pressure. Scheelhaase is able to dump it off to A.J. Jenkins, who slips out of a Drew Astorino tackle and scampers 18 yards into the end zone. Yet again, Penn State finds themselves down early. Illinois 7, Penn State 3.

Don’t worry, loyal readers, I haven’t forgotten about you. It’s just that the internet here in the press box tends to come in and out, and for the last half or or so, it’s been out. In the meantime, we’ve seen plenty of action. A Rob Bolden screen pass was picked off and returned for a touchdown for Illinois, and then on the very next play from scrimmage, Bolden unleashed an 80-yard bomb to Derek Moye to get Penn State back in it, at 14-10. Illinois just drove the ball back down the field, but the Penn State defense holds them to a 50-yard field goal attempt, which Derek Dimke is able to convert. Illinois 17, Penn State 10 with 5:19 left in the first half. Nick Sukay came off the field with an injury–this Penn State defense is decimated.

The Penn State offense can’t answer, as Bolden throws 2 incompletions and a short pass. But the Illinois special teams continue to create big plays–in favor of Penn State. Jack Ramsey’s third fumble of the game is recovered by Mike Zordich at the Illinois 9, as he muffed his second straight punt. If Penn State can’t turn this into 6, this should just give up now. But sure enough, and if there’s one thing I’m learning, it’s that you can’t underestimate how bad this offense is in the red zone. Two runs up the middle, and a pass knocked down at the line…it’s sickening right now. Wagner kicks the field goal, to make the score Illinois 17, Penn State 13, but Penn State had better start doing something different in the red zone. The boos have been raining down and with good reason.

With 2:49 left in the half to start the drive, I think Illinois was just going to run some clock. But in two plays, they’re out to midfield, and threatening to expand on their lead before the end of the first half. A scrambling Scheelhaase hits Jarred Fayson on the sideline, and Illinois is out to the Penn State 37. They’re down to the 23 after two more plays, and Illinois stops the clock with 1:11 left in the first half. They eventually get down to the 14, but will have to settle for a field goal try to extend the lead to 7 at the half. With 5 seconds left, Derek Dimke nails his 3rd field goal of the game, and at the half it’s Illinois 20, Penn State 13.

Halftime thoughts: I’ve been among this team’s biggest supporters through the first couple months of the season. While seemingly everyone else was ready to jump off the ledge after the Alabama game, I managed to see the positives. When Penn State went into Iowa City and got trounced by the Hawkeyes, the nay-sayers were out in even fuller force. But I wasn’t ready to give up on this team just yet. Now…it’s getting tough. That first half was by far the worst I’ve ever seen Penn State play (considering the competition). It was embarrassing to watch. Penn State’s best offensive play was to punt the ball to Jack Ramsey–and even then, twice recovering fumbles in scoring position–they could only muster two field goals! When you start a drive at the 9 yard line, the other team is practically giving you 6. But not with this red zone offense. And when your offensive line can’t get a push against Illinois, well, it’s time for a change. Whether that’s in personnel or coaching, I don’t know and I don’t care. All I do know is that this group ain’t getting the job done, though the playcalling certainly isn’t helping. Rob Bolden’s struggles are excusable. He’s a freshman. But this team has not put him in the best positions to be successful.

The defense gets more of a pass, because of all the injuries–but they look awful too. They’re not wrapping up, missing tackles, again playing soft and afraid rather than tenacious and aggressive. And worst of all, they haven’t even touched Scheelhaase in the pocket. Illinois doesn’t throw much, but they’ve had incredible success because they’ve had all sorts of time. No, it’s not easy when three of your top four defensive ends are out, but when you’re getting dominated at the line by Illinois, you should be ashamed. Now, Penn State’s been in this position before. They were down at the half against Temple before coming back to win. And the Lions have played far better in the second half than in the first this year. But Illinois wants it more, and other than punt returner Jack Ramsey, they’ve been a far better team.

THIRD QUARTER:

If you expected this team to come out of the locker room ready to turn things around, then shame on you. So shame on me, too, because the Lions look just as bad to open the third as they did in the first.  An uninspired 3-and-out gives the ball back to Illinois, who wisely replaced Jack Ramsey at punt returner. And the Illinois offense marches the ball right down the field. Unfortunately, they don’t have the same reservations about scoring in the red zone–or about opening up the playbook.  It’s a halfback option pass–the trickeration–and a 4 yard touchdown pass. Now it’s Illinois 27, Penn State 13, and I can’t decide whether I’m more stunned or frustrated. And you can’t expect the defense to improve–Pete Massaro just limped off with an injury.

It’s tough deciding which has been worse today, Penn State’s offense or the defense.  The offense makes its case–picking up one first down before a Graham Zug drop forces a punt.  With 6:29 left in the third quarter, Illinois takes over at their own 20. One score here, and it’s game, set, and match.

In all fairness, it’s tough to do much on defense when you’re without your top 4 defensive ends. Right now, Penn State’s front-4 consists of Jordan Hill, DaQuan Jones, James Terry, and Kevion Latham. With no push inside, Illinois can just keep it on the ground, grind out first downs, and run plenty of clock. This one is just about over. By the way, the latest Nittany Lion injury is Andrew Dailey–who was down for a while before walking off–under his own power–with the trainers. I guess that makes Malcolm Willis the starting free safety. It’s like a knife through butter, this Illinois offense, picking up big chunks on every carry. The Penn State defense holds them to three, but at Illinois 30, Penn State 13, this game is over. If I wasn’t in the press box, I’d leave now to beat the traffic. So instead, I’ll do the journalistic equivalent–I’m just going to stop here, unless this becomes a game again. This isn’t fun anymore.

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  • Bill S.

    “The 24-3 final score might be a bit deceiving–the Lions weren’t dominated by any stretch of the imagination.” – I wish I knew what game you were watching last week. Maybe you are looking at total yards or something. It just wasn’t there. They were out of that game early. Does this Illini game qualify as domination?

    I’ll answer the question for you: This Penn State team really isn’t good. Obviously you will want to delete this post, but I know how it goes: Yet again, I’m going to listen how your best win at the end of the season was Temple (but your program is great since you fill the stadium up every week).