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Illinois' Mistakes vs. Penn State's Big Plays

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Penn State's defense epitomized "bend, don't break" Saturday against Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images.
Photo by David Dermer/Getty Images.

Several Penn State fans lambasted me on Twitter for calling the defense embarrassing last Saturday.

It was expected.

For an hour after the game I sparred back and forth with Penn State fans about whether or not the defense was exceptional or inexcusable. I realized after all of the arguing stopped that we were all wrong and needed to meet somewhere in the middle.

My Argument: Illinois Choked

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was far from stellar, but he managed a simple game plan from the start that exposed Penn State’s weakness underneath.

The sad part was that everyone knew and understood that Illinois would mostly either run a read option, a screen or a short outside route. Nearly everything Illinois did played into Penn State’s supposed defensive strength, which is stopping anything within five yards of the line of scrimmage.

Illinois, aside from missing twice in its first two drives, never tested Penn State deep.

Penn State got burned on those two plays. First, Scheelhaase overshot Steve Hull down the sideline for what should have been an easy 46-yard touchdown pass. Scheelhaase connected with Spencer Harris on Illinois’ next drive for a 39-yard touchdown pass, only for it to be called back due to a chop block called on Alex Hill.

Illinois should have put points on the board on each of those two plays, but its own mistakes, not Penn State’s play, negated that possibility.

Scheelhaase employed a dink-and-dunk offense the rest of the game, rarely taking long shots downfield. Hell, Scheelhaase tried at least two screens on five of Illinos' 10 drives. It worked so well at one point that Illinois had 318 yards in 50 plays during a string of four consecutive drives.

Their Rebuttal: Penn State Made Big Plays

Penn State forced three turnovers in the red zone, effectively negating Illinois’ offensive output.

On Illinois’ first drive, Harris allowed a pass from Scheelhaase to go through his hands and toward Jordan Lucas, who caught the ball cleanly. As a side note, look out for Lucas to become a premier cornerback in college. He flashes playmaking ability more often each week.

On the last play of the game, Scheelhaase attempted to score on Illinois’ first play in overtime. He threw into double coverage down the left sideline, the ball was tipped and fell into the hands of Ryan Keiser.

Penn State also came up big near the end of the game when Illinois made a questionable call. Down 14-10, Illinois faced a fourth-and-1 from the 4-yard line. A chip shot field goal puts the Illini within one field goal of winning, and a touchdown puts them up by four points.

Illinois head coach Tim Beckman rolled the dice, and Scheelhaase’s pass to Jon Davis was deflected in a mass of bodies at the goal line. The ball fell incomplete and took away another scoring opportunity for Illinois.

The Conclusion Won't Make You Happy

Nobody is wrong here. Penn State’s defense did let Illinois trample all over them with a short passing game, but Penn State also took advantage of the opportunities that Illinois gave them.

Illinois never should have made the mental errors that stalled its first two drives and forced them into situations where they were out of field goal range and needed deep passes to keep those drives alive.

Scheelhaase never should have forced a pass into double coverage on the team’s first overtime play. Beckman should have never called for Scheelhaase to try to force the ball to one of his least favorite targets in Davis. Harris never should have dropped a pass over the middle of the red zone.

Still, when Illinois’ offense made mental errors, Penn State’s defense took full advantage of them.