Poor Opportunism Costs Penn State In Wild Loss To Illinois

In the first of what ended up being nine overtime periods, Penn State football safety Jaquan Brisker had an interception — and the game — in his hands. He dropped the ball, and the Nittany Lions went on to fall to Illinois, 20-18.

While one person is obviously never to blame, the dropped interception served as a microcosm for Penn State’s struggles Saturday afternoon. Opportunities to win the game or at least expand the lead were there over and over again, but the Nittany Lions failed to execute.

“We stepped up and made plays in critical moments, but we had other opportunities on offense, defense, and special teams where we could’ve made plays to end the game, and did not,” head coach James Franklin said after the game.

Penn State’s defense in particular certainly made plenty of plays in big moments, especially in overtime. Shutting down any offense — regardless of its caliber — for five straight two-point conversion attempts is no easy task. But being opportunistic is key in close games, and the Nittany Lions were decidedly not against Illinois.

Dropped interceptions have been a problem for Penn State all year, and it’s starting to affect the outcomes of games in real ways. Notably, Brandon Smith couldn’t haul in an easy pick against Auburn, but it was quickly forgotten and brushed off due to the victory.

According to Mark Wogenrich and SIS, Penn State’s dropped seven interceptions so far this season. Ellis Brooks had one hit his chest early in the game, and Brisker’s was the seventh. At a point “that’s why they’re defensive backs, not wide receivers” turns into “that cost Penn State the game.”

The Lackawanna product is not to blame for this loss at all, as he put himself in position to make a great play on the ball in the first place. He finished with eight tackles, a tackle for loss, and a fumble recovery as well. But, still, the one crucial play was on his mind after the game.

“[I’m not going to let that go] until the next time I step on a football field again…,” Brisker said. “No contention, I should have caught it. But it is what it is.”

Penn State’s poor opportunism permeated its offense as well. Despite wildly struggling against the run, the Nittany Lions’ defense allowed just 10 points in regular time. Allowing a staggering 357 rushing yards and only giving up one score speaks to the “bend don’t break” mentality that’s been preached all year.

The defense created three turnovers, in the form of two fumbles and one interception, but Sean Clifford & Co. could not convert on these opportunities.

Early in the second quarter, Brandon Smith forced a big fumble in Illinois territory. After a penalty, the Nittany Lions took over at the Illini’s 40, which was a prime opportunity for Penn State to double its 7-0 lead. Instead, it settled for a 35-yard field goal. Those were the only points scored off the three turnovers all afternoon.

When a game goes to overtime — and you literally just needed one more point to win –, it’s easy to point to one or two plays as the deciding factor. Jordan Stout, who’s been more than impressive this whole season, missed a 40-yard field goal in the third quarter. This detail is magnified after a loss, but the team captain said opportunities like this are missed all the time.

“I think we left some things out there,” Stout said after the game. “But at the same time, it happens. Every game is like that.”

Stout got redemption in overtime by sinking a clutch 40-yard try, even despite an icing attempt and a false start penalty. Again, neither he nor one specific player is to blame for the loss. As a whole, Penn State just could not get the job done when it needed to the most.

So, why couldn’t Penn State take care of business in these crucial and clutch situations? Star wide receiver Jahan Dotson said, offensively at least, the Nittany Lions are suffering a death by a thousand cuts.

“This all comes down to execution…It’s little details. Just little details that we have to get fixed during practice,” Dotson said. “We haven’t had a perfect practice yet…so that can roll over to Saturdays.”

Another glaring lack of execution came in the form of dropped passes, both down the stretch and in overtime. Theo Johnson was wide open down the seam in the third quarter and dropped one of Clifford’s better passes of the day. Dotson caught just six of the 14 passes intended for him.

Two key drops also came in overtime. Brenton Strange had a ball hit his hands in overtime period four, which would have been game over on the spot. Clifford also couldn’t haul in a low pass from Tyler Warren on a trick play in overtime period three.

Maybe these key execution issues have been overlooked all year. Penn State’s found ways to win “ugly” games in the past, but it’s now finding itself on a two-game skid. These types of issues are always magnified after a loss.

The next big opportunity will come next weekend against Ohio State in Columbus. We’ll see if the Nittany Lions will be able to convert that one.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected].

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