Game Day Observations: Illinois
by: Doug Leeson and Ben Berkman
Penn State put together its most complete game of the year Saturday, storming past Illinois 39-0. It was an eventful day of festivities in Beaver Stadium: Halloween brought out a spirited and costumed crowd, THON Day festivities provided another reason to cheer, and the Red Land Little League team was heartily honored in the first quarter.
On the field, Christian Hackenberg proved his triple threat capabilities, and the defense pitched a dominant shutout. The Lions will bring a serious amount of momentum this coming weekend at Northwestern. But before we get there, here are our game day observations from Saturday.
- Joe Paterno received arguably the loudest cheers of the afternoon: Paterno was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame the Saturday before this game, and in the first home football game since his induction, he was honored on the video board. Sure, former Nittany Lion players Matt Bahr and Chuck Fusina were also honored, but let’s be honest. It took way longer to read through all of the coach’s accomplishments, and nothing against Fusina and Bahr, but we know who the cheers were for.
- THON Day and the purple out were great; attendance wasn’t: THON Day at Beaver Stadium is always a special affair, and the recent passing of alumna Kayla Nakonechni made it even more so. A sizable fraction of the student crowd was dressed in purple to honor her life, and a group of students proudly displayed her name. Meanwhile, the Four Diamonds gold ribbon sat prominently next to the S-Zone. But the ribbon, and much of the purple wearers were late to appear, as another noon kick — this time paired with the aftereffects of the Halloween festivities the night before — produced a student section that was less than half-full at kick. It filled up as the game progressed, but announced attendance was only 94,417. It was a sunny day against a formidable opponent. Less than 100,000 in the middle of the year, following an inspiring road win, shouldn’t happen.
- Saturday was a party at Beaver Stadium: The game was the first Halloween home matchup since 1998. Let’s work with the calendar gods to make it happen more often. The Halloween spirit was in the air thanks to great costumes including a James Franklin doppelgänger, Power Rangers, Penn State-themed Darth Vader, and even a special mask worn by Anthony Zettel following the victory. Big plays galore reigned supreme on the field as Christian Hackenberg caught his first career touchdown pass, Saquon Barkley leapt over another defender, and the defense pitched its first shutout of the year. Standing ovations have been a rare sight in Beaver Stadium this season, but there were countless on Saturday — specifically when the Red Land Little League team was honored, during Paterno’s video tribute, and after Hackenberg’s touchdown catch. And let’s not forget about the weather. Saturday in Beaver Stadium was a Halloween party, and helped Penn State improve to 6-0 at home.
- The new sod looks nice, and didn’t seem to affect play that much: Beaver Stadium got a fresh layer of Kentucky Bluegrass sod for the first time since 2005, and it made its anticipated debut Saturday. The sod looked nice, though not much different (the Beaver Stadium field always looks nice). There was really only one play in which the turf seemed affect play. Early in the game, Brandon Polk took a jet sweep and promptly tripped over either himself, or the sod — it wasn’t clear. Nor did it matter, as Penn State scored soon after. The sod will have a bye week, then is up for a big test against Michigan.
- The second-to-last play was overlooked and may have been historic: I only noticed this by catching the end of the re-run on the Big Ten Network on Sunday, but when Penn State was running down the clock, it took an unheard-of penalty — illegal procedure for having two No. 89 players on the field at the same time. Who would’ve ever expected a scenario in which tight end Tom Pancoast and wide receiver Gordon Bentley would see the field at the same time, let alone on a Brandon Johnson (who was the fifth Penn State running back to rush the ball in the game) power run up the middle. Props to crew chief John O’Neill for his team catching the penalty, despite O’Neill’s previous disasters refereeing Penn State games — namely, Nebraska in 2012, Ohio State in 2014, and most recently, on Saquon Barkley’s highlight-reel touchdown when he stepped in front of our photographers as Barkley crossed the plane.
- Speaking of Saquon Barkley, he is finally becoming somewhat of a household name. Barkley has no shortage of incredible plays this year, and he’s nearing 1,000 yards rushing in addition to five touchdowns and has unofficially recorded three hurdles. Every Penn State fan was sold on him two games into the year, but this was the first time I scrolled through Twitter after the game and saw, among others, ESPN tweeting “Up, up, and away…“, SBNation tweeting “I believe Saquon can fly…“, and Bleacher Report calling him “Air Barkley.” He produces at least one highlight a week, and now the national media is on the look-out just like us.