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Devastating Loss To Illinois Comes At Worst Time For Penn State Football

Penn State football lost a nine-overtime shocker to Illinois 20-18 Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

With both teams coming off their bye weeks, Illinois looked like the more prepared team and gashed the Nittany Lions on the ground for 357 yards, and held their offense to just 227 total yards. Sean Clifford started at quarterback for Penn State, but he clearly wasn’t himself and appeared to be in discomfort throughout the game.

Now, Penn State has just a week to make corrections from this disastrous game before it heads into Columbus to take on No. 5 Ohio State. It’s safe to say James Franklin and Co. have their hands full, and there’s plenty of things the team needs to fix up from the disappointing performance.

Franklin mentioned after the game that injuries played a role in the struggles on both sides of the ball.

“We just had way too many guys that played significant roles in that game that just did not practice,” Franklin said. “That did not practice full-speed, full-go all week long. Practice is obviously really important. We had way too many guys, Sean was one of those guys, who missed.”

While that may be true, it’s hard to put too much of the blame on injuries when you’re coming off a bye week and playing a 2-5 football team, especially when you’re a program like Penn State that had College Football Playoff aspirations. Like the team always preaches, it’s always “next man up mentality,” regardless of the situation.

Obviously, moving forward, the No. 1 concern for Penn State should be the health of Clifford. While he was presumably declared healthy, or at least healthy enough to start this game, he’s clearly not 100%, and it showed during Saturday’s action.

After the game, Franklin admitted Clifford was limited in what he could do.

“Obviously, we had to be smart,” Franklin said. “He was limited today. That’s why we tried to mix the run and the pass in there — to try to take some of that off of him. Obviously, [running] is a big part of his game that he didn’t have today.”

Part of what makes Clifford so dynamic is his ability to run and scramble out of the pocket. Most of that was compromised today, as he had just five official rushing attempts for -28 yards, which obviously accounts for a few sacks that he took. Overall, Clifford’s limitations that stemmed from his health resulted in a pretty ineffective offense from start to finish.

Even after shutting down Penn State’s offense today, Illinois still ranks third-to-last in the Big Ten in opponent’s yards per game, and it has given up the second-most touchdowns in the conference. If Penn State goes into next week with similar limitations on Clifford against an Ohio State team that is hot and on the rise, you can smell trouble brewing.

As far as his rushing ability is concerned, Clifford thinks it’s something that’ll get better as time goes on.

“I’ll keep getting better and I’ll keep being able to push that a little bit more,” Clifford said.

Despite the optimism from the signal-caller, uncertainty around one of Clifford’s most important abilities creates all sorts of question marks moving forward for Mike Yurcich’s offense.

Another massive problem from Saturday’s game was Penn State’s inability to stop the run. Illini starter Chase Brown carried the ball 33 times for 223 yards (6.8 yards per attempt) and a touchdown. Fellow running back Josh McCray ran the ball 24 times for 142 yards (5.9 yards per carry). Overall, the Illini carried the rock 67 times and used the ground game as the focal point of their offense.

In fact, Illinois only completed eight passes all game, which accounted for just 38 yards. So, one would think Brent Pry and Co. were expecting run often, but still, the unit wasn’t able to slow down the high-powered rushing attack.

A large part of the struggles could be due to the absence of PJ Mustipher, who will miss the rest of the reason due to injury.

“PJ has played a lot of football for us here,” Franklin said. “He’s obviously a captain for us and has been a tremendous player and a big part of our defense. So, not having him factored in. There’s no doubt about it.”

It’s hard for a team to lose a player like Mustipher, and it’s understandable that there will be some struggles without him early on. However, Mustipher isn’t coming back this year, and Penn State can’t afford these types of growing pains while it figures out how to play without him.

Other than Mustipher’s absence, some of Illinois’ formations and sets are things that presented challenges for the Nittany Lions.

“Their heavy sets gave us problems,” Franklin said. “Whether they just went extra offensive lineman, created a long edge. Or they went unbalanced, created challenges for us.”

While Brown and McCray are quite the impressive one-two punch at running back, what awaits Penn State next week may be even more of a challenge.

Coming into Saturday’s action running back TreVeyon Henderson has led Ohio State’s backfield this season to the tune of 612 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns (nine rushing, two receiving). He’s averaging an absurd 8.7 yards per carry. Other than Henderson, the Buckeyes have three other running backs averaging over five yards per carry, proving to be very deep at the position.

So, it’s pretty clear Penn State has a lot to clean up, and it has to do it in very little time. A loss like this always hurts, and it can even make players “a little bit distraught,” as Jesse Luketa said after the game. That, coupled with the fact that a trip to Columbus is up next, throws a lot of adversity Penn State’s way.

And if you think it gets better after Ohio State, well, it doesn’t. Matchups against current top-10 teams Michigan and Michigan State still await Penn State later this season.

The Nittany Lions will attempt to bounce back with a much-needed win when it takes on Ohio State at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 30 on ABC.

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About the Author

Gabe Angieri

Gabe is a junior majoring in journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He grew up in Lindenhurst, New York, and has had the absolute misfortune of rooting for the Jets, Mets, and Knicks. If you want to see his bad sports takes, follow him on Twitter @gabeangieri and direct all hate mail and death threats to [email protected]

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