Penn State: The Nittany Lions seem to be having too much fun to quit now
I thought silly season was a golf thing. But it came to B1G football Saturday evening in State College, Pa.
And why not? With snow occupying the stands instead of spectators and a game happening in Beaver Stadium later in the year than ever before, why wouldn’t things get strange? Even Brenton Strange! (More on Pat Freiermuth’s heir apparent later.)
At least it was highly entertaining strangeness, and it looked like a heck of a lot of fun. These players, on both teams, braving the 30-degree game-time temperature under the lights, deserved nothing less.
The Illini, showing off in front of new coach Bret Bielema, put a mighty scare into the Nittany Lions, matching the Lions’ haymakers and then some until Illini QB Isaiah Williams and his offense ran out of gas and PSU’s defense caught its breath.
Penn State’s 56-21 victory started in max fast forward mode, and the pace didn’t slow much through the first 8 minutes.
When the Illini took a 21-14 lead a little past the midway point of the first quarter, they were on pace for 157 points and 1,485 yards of total offense. Gamblers who played the over (53.5 points) were so confident they were already spending their winnings.
Penn State’s first 14 points — Jahan Dotson’s 75-yard catch-and-run and Lamont Wade’s 100-yard kickoff return — took a combined 27 seconds. The Lions’ “drive” in between lasted 1 play, a Sean Clifford run that ended with a lost fumble.
But before PSU fans could utter “here we go again” as early-season flashbacks from an 0-5 start whirred in their heads, the Lions would be on the move again. Dotson would be streaking through wide open spaces in the Illini secondary for some of his 183 first-half receiving yards. And then the defense settled in. The offense backed off of warp speed to play some keep-away, taking command of time of possession (17:36-12:24) — a key to success during their now 4-game winning streak.
The pace still seemed to be going at least at time and a half, but the movie looked more familiar.
- Will Levis, after completing a 23-yard pass on his first play, assumed his main role, running to convert 2 fourth downs, one of them for a touchdown.
- Clifford didn’t let the lost fumble get him down, completing 13 of 16 passes for 262 yards and 2 TDs. In addition to finding Dotson 5 times, he connected with 7 other teammates.
- DC Brent Pry flipped his secret switch, and his unit went from sieve to dam, containing and harassing Williams.
That was just the first half, people. Penn State led 42-21 at the break, and the Illini were on pace for only 458 yards, while the Lions were on schedule to top 750.
Not that any of that was going to happen. Illinois couldn’t sustain that pace (a mere 44 yards in the second half), and Penn State didn’t need to. Levis got some extended run, and completed his second pass attempt of the day for a touchdown. And that brings us back around to the Strange doings that occurred in the waning hours of Saturday night.
Strange, the 6-3, 248-pound freshman who is trying to fill the shoes of the injured all-Big Ten tight end Freiermuth, broke the seal on second half scoring with an acrobatic touchdown. Late in the third quarter, Strange finished a 7-yard pass play from Levis with a diving one-arm pushup that sprung him into the end zone. He finished with 4 catches for 31 yards and the TD, his second of the season.
After that, a punting clinic ensued for awhile as the temperate dipped to 27 degrees. The fun was mostly done. Dotson had but 1 catch for 6 yards in the second half before giving way to those below him on the depth chart.
Levis did bring smiles to faces, his own included, when he hurtled a would-be tackler on the Lions’ final scoring drive. The 10-play march chewed up 79 yards and more than 5 minutes of game time, and ended with Caziah Holmes blasting straight ahead for a 1-yard score. That gave the Lions 42 unanswered points and a 56-21 lead with less than 4 minutes remaining.
Illinois was no longer having fun, I’d venture to guess. Bielema, hired by Illinois hours earlier to replace the fired Lovie Smith, attended the game but watched from a distance. It was his first in-person glimpse of the task at hand.
He also saw a Penn State program that might never again be the pushover it looked like at the end of Week 5. The Lions have gotten well against struggling teams, for sure. But at least they don’t look like one of them anymore. The worst is over, and has been for 4 solid weeks now.
The long slog through 2020 is nearly done, and these Lions have earned the smiles they wore Saturday night in a chilly Beaver Stadium.
It looked like so much fun, I think they might want to endure the sacrifices it would take to extend this season for a bowl game.
I’m guessing a lot of the PSU faithful want to see this team again, too. I do.