A Halloween Treat: Penn State Steamrolls Illinois, 39-0

Where has this team been all year?

Penn State clicked on all cylinders Saturday afternoon, defeating Illinois 38-0 in a happy, sunny, Halloween party in Beaver Stadium.

It was a game of highlight plays. Christian Hackenberg caught his first career touchdown pass. Saquon Barkley hurdled three defenders at once, then fell into the endzone with the ball and without a shoe. Troy Reeder intercepted Illini quarterback Wes Lunt, then nearly took it to the house. And the ever-reliable Carl Nassib added to his nation-leading sack total.

Penn State set the tone early with two first quarter touchdown passes, that, despite two missed extra points, seemingly put the game away before the half. It never looked back, and a THON Day crowd had plenty to cheer about all afternoon.

Penn State’s now 7-2, matching last year’s win total.

How It Happened

The game’s first three drives ended in punts, setting an ominous tone to this Halloween matchup. But Penn State found its offensive footing midway through the first quarter. A 31-yard reception to a wide open DeAndre Thompkins brought Penn State to Illinois’ 30-yard line. A screen to Saquon Barkley, and several runs by the workhorse who earned his first start, quickly set up a third and goal from the five. Dropping back, Hackenberg found Chris Godwin in the back of the endzone. Joey Julius missed the extra point.

Mere plays later, Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt telegraphed a pass to a curling receiver. Troy Reeder intercepted the ball, and the former high school running back returned it to Illinois’ six. The next play, Hackenberg found Geno Lewis on a jump ball in the back of the endzone, a catch quite similar to his game-winning touchdown last weekend. Yet again, however, Julius’ extra point was blocked.

After a dull first 10 minutes of the second quarter that featured punts galore, Tyler Davis drilled a 42-yard field goal for Penn State, stretching the lead to 15-0, which it took to the half. It was Davis’ second make of the year, and ended the day for Julius.

With the ball to begin the second half, Penn State maintained its momentum, marching down the field and into the redzone. And then, on a trick play, Nick Scott took a handoff and ran right. He turned suddenly, and lobbed the ball to a wide open Christian Hackenberg. No. 14 caught the ball around the 10 yard line, then waltzed into the endzone. It was his first career touchdown reception, and brought Beaver Stadium to a thunderous roar.

The game well decided, Penn State didn’t let up. After a Tyler Davis field goal, the Lions again had possession to begin the fourth quarter at the Illinois 38. Hackenberg found Gesicki inside the ten, setting up a first and goal. Then Saquon Barkley took a handoff, cut right, hurdled a defender, jumped out of his shoe, and then fell into the endzone. It was another amazing #Jumpman feat in a season full of them, and pushed the Penn State lead to 32-0.

Trace McSorely saw time in the fourth quarter, and, though largely unproductive passing the ball, carried three times for 15 yards. He also handed off to Mark Allen for a 20-yard score that brought the rout to a 39-0 clip.

Player Of The Game

Christian Hackenberg proved he could pass, run, and catch Saturday afternoon. His numbers weren’t mind-blowing, but they were efficient: 21-29, 266 yards, and two touchdowns. And, in Franklin’s words from a previous week, he was an effective game manager.

When the pocket collapsed — and it did many times — Hackenberg kept plays alive with his legs. On one play in the second quarter, he sidestepped three tacklers for the most thrilling three-yard gain you’ll ever see. His passes were more accurate than many this season, and seven receivers (other than Hackenberg) caught at least one pass.

His 14-yard touchdown reception, maybe the most surprising play of the year for Penn State (and a rare case in which a John Donovan trick play works out), proved Hackenberg could get it done on the other side of the ball as well.

Notable Note

It’s an unfortunate one. Penn State only turned the ball over twice, but they were both lost fumbles by DeAndre Thompkins. His second, a muffed punt with two minutes to play, almost ruined the Lions’ shutout bid. But the Penn State’s second string defense held tough, and forced a turnover on downs.

What’s Next

Maybe it’s best that Penn State has to play again before its sees a much-earned bye game. The Lions will take a ton of momentum into Evanston, where Penn State battles Northwestern. Northwestern is 6-2, and had a bye this weekend.

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Ben Berkman

State College, PA

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