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Penn State Defense Proves Itself Against Illinois

Penn State’s defense created five turnovers, four tackles for loss, and one sack in its 30-13 win against Illinois this afternoon, proving itself as the unit many believed it could be.

Heading into this game, Manny Diaz’s group had a good opportunity to prove it was legit after mixed performances in the first two games, and there could be plenty of opportunities to capitalize on Illinois quarterback Luke Altmyer’s weaknesses. Altmyer had such a long and miserable day that he was benched in favor of John Paddock in the fourth quarter.

It all started in Illinois’ second drive of the game. Despite missing a field goal attempt in their inaugural drive, the offense established a steady rhythm moving the ball. That appeared to remain the case, but Dominic DeLuca knocked the ball loose from running back Josh McCray’s grasp, and Kobe King recovered it to give Penn State another scoring opportunity.

Then, Altmyer threw interceptions on the next two drives. Abdul Carter had the first pick, as the ball was thrown directly into his hands at the 45-yard line. He ran 18 yards into Fighting Illini territory before being tackled at the end of his first career interception.

After Carter’s interception, Daequan Hardy jumped up and grabbed the ball at Penn State’s 43-yard line, and the snowball continued to accumulate and rumble down the hill. Cam Miller and Johnny Dixon grabbed the other two interceptions later in the game. The turnovers created an infectious mindset for the defense, as more and more players started looking more actively for their opportunity.

“Once we started getting picks, or fumbles, or forced fumbles, the whole defense started to get a feeling of ‘I have to get me one,’ and then another person would go, ‘I have to get me one,’ and that just kept building on,” Carter said.

“It does feel contagious,” Miller echoed. “Once someone pops it off, it’s like everyone knows we were getting gifts out there.”

As those opportunities came, Carter said he began to observe that Altmyer was unnerved. The defense had an easier time identifying his target and making plays.

“I felt like he was a little rattled throughout the game, so he’d look at his target and that’s where he’s going, and the defense made a lot of plays on the ball,” he said.

Altmyer had already thrown three interceptions this season. However, coming away from the game with four interceptions displayed Penn State’s ability to exploit weaknesses and make significant plays that can change a game.

Additionally, the defense’s play was especially important while Penn State’s offense struggled in the first half. Despite Altmyer’s struggles, Illinois had 292 passing yards and was within striking distance for much of the game before the Nittany Lions broke it open in the fourth quarter. The turnovers on defense also gave momentum to the offense, even though it took time.

“I feel like once we get a turnover that gives us momentum offensively and defensively,” Dominic DeLuca said.

Altmyer, known as a dual-threat quarterback, picked up just six yards on the ground. That can be attributed to Penn State’s experiences in practice, or from playing West Virginia quarterback Garrett Greene in week one.

“We got a couple of quarterbacks on our own team that can move a little bit, so we get good looks in practice, and it prepares us for the game,” Carter said.

Penn State played well against Delaware in week two, but that was expected against an FCS team. Its performance against Illinois displayed that it can play the same way against a Power Five opponent.

“Before [the game] we felt like we had to make a statement, and we made that today,” Carter said.

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About the Author

Nolan Wick

Nolan is a third-year journalism major from Silver Spring, Maryland, which means he's an avid fan of all D.C. sports teams. If Nolan isn't writing about or watching sports, you can probably find him listening to all sorts of music or traveling. To keep up with Nolan, you can follow him on Twitter @nolan_wick or email him at [email protected].

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