This Time, Penn State’s Defense Couldn’t Close the Game

In Penn State’s six wins this season, and even in many of its five losses, it’s been the Nittany Lions’ defense that has kept the game competitive as the offense sputtered and struggled to score.

Entering Saturday’s matchup against Illinois, it placed in the top five nationally in many statistical categories.

However, on a breezy day in Champaign, it was Penn State’s defense that couldn’t get it done, and ultimately failed in closing out the game. Sure, the offense and special teams performed terribly — but at this point that’s really nothing new.

“We have a standard,” said sophomore linebacker Nyeem Wartman. “We didn’t play at that standard.”

And for the first time this season, an offensive skilled player truly dominated Penn State’s defense from start to finish. It came in the name of tiny 5-11 freshman wideout Mike Dudek. Dudek, who caught most of his passes in a gap between the line of scrimmage and the secondary, where Penn State’s stout linebackers normally roam, torched the Nittany Lions for 11 receptions and 115 yards.

Dudek caught four passes late in the second quarter in a span of five plays that lasted 53 seconds. Those receptions — of 9, 9, 20, and 7 yards respectively — put the Illini at the Nittany Lion’s one-yard line. A play later, right before the half, Reilly O’Toole’s pass found the end-zone to tie the game at 7-7.

At that point, Penn State had not scored since its first possession, early in the first quarter. In countless similar instances throughout the season, it would have been the defense forcing a turnover to secure the lead. But the defense could not find a stop, and didn’t earn a takeaway all game.

It wasn’t as if Illinois boasted a necessarily strong offense, either. Injured quarterback Wes Lunt started the game, but did not finish. O’Toole, a backup who entered the game with four touchdowns and six interceptions, steadily controlled the Illini’s offense and finished 18-25 for 157 yards and a touchdown. For comparison, Christian Hackenberg completed eight passes on only 16 attempts, for 93 yards.

But this all could have been forgotten had the Nittany Lions held Illinois on its final possession. The Illini fielded the Nittany Lion’s punt with 1:30 remaining at its 28. With field goal kicker David Reisner entering the game only 1/3 on the season, and having missed a 50-yard field goal on the previous possession, it appeared the defense would be able to hold Illinois.

James Franklin had elected to punt on fourth-and-one from Illinois’ 42, instilling trust in a defense that had yet to fail him all season.

“Our defense has been playing well all year,” said Franklin. “You punt the ball and make them earn it. I think that was the right decision.”

It proved to be drastically wrong. Dudek slipped through for 25 yards on the first play, then consecutive gains of 17 and 16 put Illinois at the 14 — field goal range for even its struggling kickers. Four players later, Resiner belted a 36-yarder through the uprights, giving Illinois the 16-14 lead it would not relinquish.

Mike Hull finished with 10 tackles, finding double-digits as he has for much of the year. Wartman and Marcus Allen added 9 each, but the Nittany Lions’ defense accumulated on two sacks. It didn’t help that true freshman Jason Cabinda was forced to make his first career start for the injured Brandon Bell. The Illini dropped back to pass 42 times, yet still gained 5.1 yards an attempt.

“Our defense has, time after time and week after week, had our back,” said Franklin. “And today they were unable to do that.”

Up next for Penn State’s defense is Michigan State’s rushing attack which averages over 240 yards a game. It will be Senior Day at Beaver Stadium, and the final home game for defensive starters Hull, Adrian Amos, and C.J. Olaniyan.

“We’re going to play vicious,” said Wartman.

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About the Author

Ben Berkman

State College, PA

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