Penn State Cruises Past Illinois Behind Strong Second Half
CHAMPAIGN, Il. – Miles Sanders had a career night as the No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions defeated Illinois in Memorial Stadium, 63 to 24.
Sanders was given 22 carries and took them for 200 yards and three touchdowns. He would have also added a touchdown pass to Trace McSorley if it wasn’t for a penalty on the play. His final carry went for two yards to get him to the coveted 200 rushing yards total for the first time in his collegiate career.
“One of the things you don’t see us doing much anymore is giving up many tackles for loss,” said Penn State head coach James Franklin after the game. “As a running back you think you want to bounce everything and try to go 80 yards every single time. Then you end up 2nd and 12. Getting the running back to understand lowering your shoulder and getting two or three yards to keep us on schedule is important. I think he’s doing a really good job at that.”
McSorley went 12-for-19 on the day for 160 yards, adding three touchdowns and an interception. He added 92 yards to his stat sheet with his feet on 15 carries. With his first touchdown pass, McSorley increased his NCAA-leading pass touchdown streak to 32 games in a row.
During the first half, the Nittany Lions struggled to get the upper hand over the Fighting Illini. Penn State struck first with a 14-yard run by Sanders. Illinois struck back with a 2-yard run by Reggie Corbin to end the first quarter 7-7.
Penn State scored back-to-back touchdowns to start the second quarter, including freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth’s first career touchdown. Then Penn State shot itself in the foot, giving the Illini multiple free first downs on penalty after penalty.
The Nittany Lions would end the game with eight penalties for 72 yards. The Illini took advantage, bringing the game within four with a last-second halftime field goal.
“We didn’t play as well as I think we are capable of doing in the first half,” said Franklin. “We’re going to have to get some things cleaned up. I think that’s one of the exciting things. We found a way to win the game on the road once again but there’s still a lot of things we still need to get better at, in all phases.”
Illinois jumped on its momentum, scoring a lead-switching touchdown to start the second half.
With the score 28-24, Penn State switched into overdrive. Five plays later, Penn State converted the first of its six-straight touchdown drives. The first coming on Miles Sanders’ 48-yard touchdown run.
On its next drive, Penn State marched down the field again. On 3rd and 12 from the Illinois 16 yard line to start the fourth quarter, Trace McSorley found Juwan Johnson in the end zone to put Penn State up 35-24. The catch was Johnson’s second career touchdown. He would finish the game with four catches for 51 yards and the touchdown.
Coming into the second half, Penn State had turned the ball over twice – once on a fumble and once on an interception resulting in three points for Illinois. Penn State’s luck was about to flip.
Less than a minute after the Nittany Lions’ first touchdown of the fourth quarter, Jan Johnson dove to intercept a pass dropped by an Illinois receiver. The Nittany Lions converted on their first play as McSorley found KJ Hamler 21-yards downfield for a touchdown. Hamler finished with two catches for 41 yards.
Penn State finished the game with 591 yards - 387 on the ground. Freshman running back Ricky Slade took over for Sanders and was handed the rock 10 times for 94 yards and two touchdowns. In the fourth quarter, and with Penn State seemingly already far enough ahead for the sure victory, Slade broke a 61-yard run to the right for a touchdown to put Penn State up 49-24.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Clifford entered the game late and impressed again, completing his only pass to redshirt freshman wide receiver Mac Hippenhammer for 44 yards to the Illinois one-yard line to set up Slade’s second touchdown of the night.
Penn State’s defense overwhelmed the Illini in the second half. Jonathan Sutherland led Penn State with eight tackles and a tackle for loss, followed by Garrett Taylor with seven and 1.5 tackles for loss.
The Nittany Lions’ defense finished the game with 5.5 tackles for loss and one sack – shared between Robert Windsor and Ellis Brooks. Brooks also accounted for Penn State’s other interception.
After Brooks’ interception and return to the Illini 10 yard line with just over two and a half minutes left to play, redshirt freshman running back Journey Brown pushed for 6-yards for his career first touchdown. His touchdown accounted for the final points of the game, and Penn State’s second game in a row putting up 63 points.
Third down efficiency killed the Illini, as Penn State went 9-for-11 on third down compared to Illinois’ 4-for-12. Once Penn State stopped leaving laundry all over the field in the second half, Illinois didn’t have the offense to keep up. To add insult to injury, Illinois started having penalty problems late in the game, ending with seven for 81 yards.
With the victory, Penn State has scored 112 points in the fourth quarter this season, an average of 28 per game, and has scored in every quarter of play – including overtime.
The 4-0 Nittany Lions are back in Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 29, to take on their biggest challenge yet, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Penn State has an extra day to prepare and it might need it as the Buckeyes are one of the most dangerous teams in the nation. Plus, the result of next week’s game could determine which team will represent the East in the 2018 Big Ten Championship. The game is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.
The Fighting Illini are 2-2 on the season and have a week to recover before heading to New Jersey to take on Rutgers on Oct. 6.
Tommy Butler is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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