Penn State’s New Faces Take Another Step Forward Against Illinois
When Penn State went down 24-21 to Illinois in the third quarter Friday night, the Nittany Lions didn’t panic. Instead, they exploded for six unanswered touchdowns in a 63-24 win over the Illini.
It was only the fourth time in 100 years that a Big Ten team had scored 60 points in back-to-back games.
James Franklin said building depth was a primary focus for the coaching staff heading into the team’s White Out against Ohio State. From start to finish in Champaign, the Nittany Lions rotated heavily on both sides of the ball.
“Thirty of the 74 players in our travel party are true freshmen or redshirt freshmen. All those reps that we’re getting are critical,” Franklin said. “I don’t know any other way to get guys better than getting them on the field and playing them.”
Redshirt freshman receiver KJ Hamler, who had 70 all-purpose yards and a touchdown catch, said he and Miles Sanders have been preparing for moments like this all offseason.
“Like I always tell him, ‘We’re the new faces of the offense,'” Hamler said. “We’ve got to show ourselves every game and we’ve got to improve every game. Miles did a great job. We held our blocks a lot so he could get in the open field.”
That he did. Sanders racked up a career-high 200 rushing yards and three touchdowns against the Illini before making way for Ricky Slade’s breakout performance. Sanders said new running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider has instilled a more physical mentality in them.
“He likes that downhill stuff,” Sanders said. “He came from West Virginia and Florida, so he’s been telling us, ‘Just be physical. Be the hammer not the nail.'”
Penn State accumulated 591 yards of total offense in the team’s Big Ten opener, with the offensive line imposing its will up front. The Nittany Lions finished with 387 rushing yards, as Slade scored twice in the second half and redshirt freshman Journey Brown found the end zone for the first time.
Hamler, who said he looks up to his godbrother Devin Funchess, Steve Smith Sr., Stefon Diggs, and DeSean Jackson, was quick to pick his favorite pump-up song.
“My go-to song before games is Tupac’s ‘All Eyez On Me’ cause that’s how it feels. Everybody’s watching us. I feel like I’ve always got something to prove. When I listen to Tupac, it just gets me in my zone.”
Redshirt junior tight end Jonathan Holland, who had three catches for 53 yards, said the team was hardly surprised when Sanders ran wild to the tune of 9.1 yards per carry.
“We really know what to expect out of him,” Holland said. “As long as we make our blocks and do everything correctly, then Miles is going to be a huge threat in the run game and can really make plays. I don’t think anybody was surprised by the game he had.”
Holland said he was excited to see true freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth score his first college touchdown on a 5-yard pass from Trace McSorley in the second quarter.
“It was awesome. I was so hype,” Holland said. “I saw him coming across and knew he was going to get in. The whole tight end unit just erupted. He’s been playing really good football.”
Sean Clifford remained perfect on the season, completing his only pass on a 44-yard strike to fellow redshirt freshman Mac Hippenhammer. Classmate Jonathan Sutherland, a safety from Ottawa, led the defense with a career-high eight tackles.
Young linebackers Micah Parsons and Ellis Brooks had six tackles apiece in the victory. Brooks’ first interception in a Penn State uniform set up Brown’s touchdown to cap the scoring.
Franklin and the Nittany Lions will focus on correcting their run defense during practice this week, but there’s no doubt this Penn State offense has been fun to watch. Under new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, the team is averaging 55.5 points per game this season.
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