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Penn State’s Post-Illinois Report Card

Well, that game sure wasn’t pretty.

Penn State football suffered its second loss of the season Saturday afternoon when it fell to Illinois 20-18 in nine overtime periods. The Nittany Lions were ineffective offensively and gashed on the ground defensively, leading to a narrow win for the Fighting Illini.

Following the loss, James Franklin’s squad dropped 13 spots to No. 20 in the AP Top 25 Poll. Before the Nittany Lions move on to Ohio State, it’s time to hand out some grades for Penn State’s disappointing post-bye week loss.

Quarterback: C

In a bit of a shock, Sean Clifford was announced as the starting quarterback on the video board shortly before kickoff. While it was a pleasant surprise to see QB1 back so soon, it definitely didn’t go the way the team would’ve hoped.

Clifford completed just 56% of his passes for 165 yards and a touchdown. Throughout the game, it was clear the signal-caller was still bothered by the undisclosed injury that knocked him out of the Iowa game two weeks prior. Time and time again, Clifford was slow to get up after taking a hit, and he looked generally uncomfortable for much of the game.

Additionally, Clifford’s running ability was completely compromised, as he only ran the ball once, not including the four sacks he took. Franklin even admitted after the game that Clifford was “limited” in what he could do.

It’s hard to blame Clifford for the offense’s struggles — he simply didn’t have his full repertoire of skills at his disposal, and it showed. To his credit, he battled and showed up for his team, which is admirable. However, it’s still fair to question whether he actually should’ve played.

Running Backs: C-

Same thing, different week.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Penn State couldn’t get the running game going in this one. Noah Cain, Keyvone Lee, and John Lovett combined for 23 carries worth 88 yards, which averages out to a pedestrian 3.83 yards per carry. Cain got the majority of the carries with 11, and he totaled 43 of the 88 yards among the running backs.

In the passing game, no real impact was made, either. Cain caught just one pass for two yards, while Lovett hauled in two for two yards. Simply put, there was just no impactful performance from any of the Nittany Lions’ backs.

In their defense, the running backs certainly didn’t benefit from a compromised Clifford because there was never a real threat of Clifford keeping the ball on any zone reads. However, Penn State’s running game being a complete non-factor isn’t a new theme, and its performance against Illinois is just another example of that.

Wide Receivers: C+

It’s only fair to acknowledge that Penn State’s wideouts were affected by Clifford’s limitations. Clifford is usually able to extend plays and find his receivers late in a play, but that wasn’t really the case Saturday. Given that, we were lenient when grading this group.

Jahan Dotson led the way with six receptions worth 69 yards, while KeAndre Lambert-Smith posted three catches for 49 yards and a touchdown. The only other wideout to catch a pass was Parker Washington, as he hauled in four receptions for 17 yards.

None of those numbers really pop off the page, and there was really just never a consistent rhythm between Clifford and any of his wide receivers against the Illini. There weren’t any glaring mistakes either, which is why the unit earns a grade in the middle of the pack.

Tight Ends: D

It wasn’t a good day for Penn State’s tight ends.

Brenton Strange caught just two passes for 24 yards, and Theo Johnson added just one catch for one yard. Additionally, Johnson had a costly drop on a pass over the middle that would’ve resulted in big yardage, if not a touchdown.

Besides not making a difference in the passing game, some of the struggles with run-blocking fall on the shoulders of the tight ends. Overall, it was a really quiet performance for Ty Howle’s tight ends on all fronts.

Offensive Line: D

Penn State’s offensive line just wasn’t very good Saturday.

Sean Clifford was sacked a season-high four times in quite possibly the worst game for it to happen in given his injury situation. Keeping the quarterback upright is always priory No. 1 for an offensive line, and the group just wasn’t able to do that effectively on Saturday.

The Nittany Lions’ lack of a run game still hasn’t changed, and the offensive line is responsible for a large part of that. The holes just haven’t been there for Penn State’s backs to run through, and it’s been that way for much of the season. Illinois has one of the worst rushing defenses in the Big Ten, so there was really no excuse for Phil Trautwein’s group to not get a more consistent push up front.

Defensive Line: C-

Yes, Illinois had only 10 points in regulation. However, the Illini totaled an absurd 357 yards on the ground, and that’s why we can’t give this unit a grade any higher.

It’s inexcusable to give up 357 rushing yards to a team that can’t throw the ball. Illinois quarterback Artur Sitkowski completed only eight passes for 38 yards. It was almost a given the Illini were going to run, but the Nittany Lions still couldn’t stop them. That obviously doesn’t just fall on the defensive line, but it’s a big part of it. We know the loss of PJ Mustipher is massive, but the group has to be better in that department.

On the bright side, Penn State defensive linemen totaled three sacks — 1.5 from Arnold Ebiketie, one from Derrick Tangelo, and 0.5 from Jesse Luketa. Ebiketie’s final line was impressive, as he posted 10 tackles and two tackles for loss.

Linebackers: B

Some of the struggles stopping the run fall on the linebackers, but they played an overall solid game otherwise. Ellis Brooks totaled 11 tackles and one pass breakup, while Brandon Smith had seven tackles, one sack, and a forced fumble.

Curtis Jacobs totaled five tackles and hauled in his first-career interception, too.

Brent Pry’s linebackers contributed to a shutdown effort in coverage, and they were honestly one of the few bright spots from Saturday’s disaster.

Secondary: A-

The best performance on Penn State’s squad came from the secondary.

Artur Sitkowski didn’t throw it often, but when he did, it was bad news for Illinois. The Illini totaled just 38 passing yards, which is almost unheard of in today’s college football.

Ji’Ayir Brown led the way for the secondary with a career-high 13 tackles, as well as one pass deflection. Additionally, Jaquan Brisker continued his stellar play with eight tackles, one pass breakup, and a fumble recovery.

The Nittany Lions’ corners came to play, too. Joey Porter Jr. totaled a career-high nine tackles and had one pass deflection. Tariq Castro-Fields had a costly penalty but ended up having a solid game with six tackles and a pass breakup. Corners Johnny Dixon and Daequan Hardy each contributed a pass breakup, too.

Special Teams: B+

Besides a missed Jordan Stout field goal in the third quarter, there’s really not much to complain about with Penn State’s special teams. Yes, the missed kick was costly, but it’s not fair to tear down the grade too much because of it.

Stout turned in another beautiful performance punting the ball, as he averaged 46.9 yards per punt, had four punts of 50+ yards, and dropped seven punts inside the 20-yard line. Additionally, he booted all of his kickoffs through the end zone for a touchback. Shocker, right?

As usual, the Nittany Lions got nothing in the return game. However, the biggest thing is that there were no mistakes, and that held true for Joe Lorig’s group Saturday afternoon.

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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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