Penn State defense, Christian Hackenberg dominant in shutout of Illinois
Final: Penn State 39, Illinois 0
Key play: Troy Reeder 44-yard interception return
Illinois had hopes of turning it into a back-and-forth battle. Reeder ended that notion in a hurry. The emerging redshirt freshman linebacker picked off Wes Lunt and returned it 44 yards to give the Lions a short field for their second score of the day. The Lions forced five turnovers against Maryland last week and when they needed to turn the momentum early, Reeder did exactly that. It was all Lions from there.
Telling stat: Illinois’ 167 total yards
The Penn State defense did not take too kindly to the fact that it was being told it was regressing. After two straight games allowing at least 30 points, the Lions played their best defensive game of the year. Austin Johnson, Anthony Zettel and Carl Nassib all got sacks against an Illini defense that came into Saturday as the B1G’s best in pass protection. By the way, Nassib recorded a sack in his ninth straight game, which was a Penn State record. He’s 0.5 sacks short of a 36-year-old Penn State record for sacks in a season. Lunt couldn’t get anything going all day. It marked Penn State’s first B1G shutout in six years. Even though Illinois was without its top offensive weapon in Josh Ferguson, that’s still an impressive feat.
-Christian Hackenberg is feeling it
The Penn State quarterback has faced plenty of scrutiny in the last two years. On Saturday, he might’ve turned some of his doubters into believers. He looked even better than last week, completing 21 of his 29 passes for a pair of scores, both of which came on perfect throws. Then, just for good measure, he CAUGHT a touchdown pass on a trick play thrown by Nick Scott. For once, Hackenberg got to put a headset on and relax on the sideline in the final minutes. He hasn’t had enough of those moments in his career. You can bet he enjoyed Saturday.
–Maybe Saquon Barkley should run for president
-Illinois actually did a pretty decent job containing the freshman sensation. He only ran for four yards per carry and was held to just one touchdown. But the one touchdown was special. He hurdled two Illinois defenders from the 4-yard line and delivered the highlight of the day. It’s tough to believe when he makes plays like that that he’s only a freshman. But there were other reminders. He did fail to pick up a blitz that led to a sack by Jihad Ward and Hackenberg let him know about it. Barkley also dropped a swing pass on third down. He’s clearly an elite rusher, but he still has some work to do to become a complete back. Don’t worry, he has time.
What it means: Penn State looks dangerous when healthy, Illinois has issues
If you could dream up the best-case scenario for the Lions on Saturday, that was it. For maybe the first game all year, both sides of the ball looked dominant. Hackenberg looked comfortable and confident, Barkley was ridiculous and the defense looked as good as it’s looked all season. After every Lions win, it always felt like one side of the ball was a struggle. These games have been few and far between in the James Franklin era. For Illinois, the loss wasn’t so troubling. The way it lost was. That was an even worse performance than North Carolina, which is not what Bill Cubit wanted to see from his group heading into the final month of the season.