Penn State 30, Illinois 13: Turning Over Poorman’s All-22 from Champaign
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Champagne all around for the Nittany Lion defense. Carter, Dixon, Hardy and Miller were all bubbly after forcing five turnovers and holding Illinois to just 62 yards rushing on seventh-ranked Penn State’s way to a 30-13 victory in front of an Orange Out crowd that lacked any major juice. (Just like its offense.)
Let’s go All-22 … so-named this season for the number of players on the field at one time…and not the number of picks the Penn State defense had against beleaguered Illini quarterback Luke Altmyer, who threw four interceptions in the span of 19 passes.
1. “Insanity. Absolute insanity.” That’s what Illinois head coach Bret Bielema had to say about the Illini’s five turnovers.
1a. Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” (i.e., passing vs. Penn State’s secondary).
2. QB1 Drew Allar, like you, was a bit frustrated that Penn State’s offense didn’t convert the Nittany Lions’ turnover spree of four picks and one fumble recovery into more points.
When the going got tough on Saturday, DC Manny Diaz’s guys kept handing the ball back to OC Mike Yurcich’s offense. In one stretch, Penn State’s defense created three turnovers in nine plays. Despite the gifts, Penn State scored just 20 points off of turnovers — two TDs, two field goals and a punt. Among those possessions was a three-play, six-yard drive and a four-play, minus six yards drive.
“What,” I asked Allar, who was a misleading 16 of 33 passing for 208 yards due to several drops and a lack of crispness by his receivers, “is your mentality when the offense takes over after a turnover?”
“To go score,” he said. Right answer.
To which I followed up: “How frustrating is it when that doesn’t happen?”
Give him credit. The Kid was honest: “Oh, I mean it’s very frustrating, for sure. Obviously, I don’t know how many points we had off of turnovers. I don’t think it was many. We just got to do better and be more efficient offensively. I think it’s all things in our control that we can clean up, so I’m looking forward to watching the film and diving into it, then putting this in the past and moving on to next week.”
3. “The other thing,” Penn State head coach James Franklin pointed out after the game, “is that our offense is not turning the ball over as well. You do those things [cause turnovers, not make them], you’re gonna win a lot of games.”
3a. Allar has not turned the ball over in the 13 games of his Penn State career. No turnovers through three games in 2023, with 88 passes and 15 runs. No turnovers for his college career, through 148 passes and 33 runs — 181 plays in all.
3b. Penn State’s offense in 2023 has not turned the ball over, either – no lost fumbles, no interceptions — over 233 plays (135 run, 98 pass), plus seven punt returns by Kaden Saunders.
4. The four interceptions by Penn State. A lot, but not a record. Penn State’s Neal Smith had 4 himself, against Ohio in 1970. The all-time PSU record is 9, against Bucknell in 1947, followed by 7 vs. Boston College in 1970.
Let’s hear from the interceptors themselves:
5. Cornerback Johnny Dixon, whose counterpart Kalen King told BTN that he and Dixon are the best CB combo in the country: His interception “was important. I thought about that after the moment. At the time, you just think about making the play in general. We felt that we would have chances today, but we didn’t know we would have four. When one person gets it on, it’s dangerous — because we all start feeding off of that.”
6. Nickelback Daequan Hardy, who missed the first two games of 2023 for reasons he did not care to share on Saturday: “It felt good to be just on the field again, out there with my brothers. Coach Manny always talks about just creating turnovers, trying to keep the crowd out of the game. I felt we did that. A lot of guys got their hands on the football today.”
7. Linebacker Abdul Carter, who was sporting a huge “Linebacker U” chain: “I thought [Illini QB Altmyer] had the No. 1 target on the left side, so I lined up like I was blitzing, but I dropped back, just reading the quarterback’s eyes and he led me right to the play. I thought [Altmyer] was a little bit rattled throughout the game. He looked at his target and that was where he was going. The defense made a lot of plays on the ball. We just kept getting in his face, kept hitting him, being physical with him and then let him make a lot of mistakes.”
7a. “Are turnovers contagious?” I asked Carter.
“Yeah, I think they are,” answered the Dr. (of Defense) Carter. “Look at the game we just had. Once we got one from him, they started rolling in. Once we start getting picks or force fumbles, the whole thing starts feeling like, ‘I got to get me one.’ ”
8. Cornerback Cam Miller, who says getting a pick ain’t easy, despite what you see on TV: “There’s never an intersection [where the interception] is so easy it becomes hard. When you’re in a zone defense, you get to read the quarterback. You see it all the way through.”
9. An Illinois fumble in the first quarter, caused by The Big Zero, Dom DeLuca, and recovered by LB Kobe King, got the turnover party started. It was the second turnover DeLuca had a hand in over the past two weeks; last week he had a pick-six vs. Delaware.
The Nittany Lions, DeLuca said, are developing a turnover mentality. “Oh, 100%,” DeLuca said. “I feel like once we get a turnover, that gives us momentum offensively and defensively. We’re trying to get our takeaway goal every day. We try to get three a game. Once we get one, they all start rolling.”
10. Let’s not forget it was Diaz, as the defensive coordinator at Miami (Fla.), who created The Turnover Chain. In 2017, Miami led the nation in turnovers, with 31. (Though, with Diaz as head coach in his last season with the Hurricanes in 2021, Miami had just 11 turnovers.)
11. And let’s not forget: Nicholas Singleton is a multi-tooled (and unappreciated) weapon. The Kaytron Allen Saga has grabbed the headlines lately, but Singleton keeps chugging along. I postulate that Yurcich should scheme to use Singleton more, in the Penn State vein of Saquon Barkley and Curt Warner — both preeminent runners, receivers and return men (and really good guys, to boot).
Singleton’s rushing stat line of 11 carries of 37 yards (3.4 ypc) vs. the Illini looks/is puny. But let’s dig deeper. He had 16 touches, and on six of them he exploded (what Penn State almost desperately needs). Talk about efficiency. His longest run in 2023 is just 16 yards, while Allen’s longest is 18. QB2 Beau Pribula has the longest run from scrimmage for Penn State in 2023 (a 21-yarder vs. Illinois), followed by Trey Potts (20). More on Potts in a minute.
12. Singleton on Saturday:
1Q: 18-yard reception
2Q: 12-yard reception, 31-yard kickoff return
3Q: 19-yard reception, 23-yard kickoff return
4Q: 16-yard run
Three things: 1.) Maybe Franklin can start his presser on Tuesday by praising his “other” running back; 2.) Singleton caught all three targets from Allar, a rarity for any PSU receiver on Saturday; 3.) To quote Keyshawn Johnson, “Just give Nick the damn ball.”
13. RB Potts’ TD toss was a thing of beauty. His 11-yard floater to TE Tyler Warren for a touchdown (and a 522.4 passer rating) and a 23-7 lead in the third quarter sealed the deal for Penn State. But that is only part of the story.
Potts, who is from Williamsport, transferred from Minnesota in the offseason. He’s been a reliable though seldom-used No. 3 RB and a real positive influence — upbeat and seasoned — in the Penn State locker room. The TD toss was conceived just last week after he was throwing the football with RB coach Ja’Juan Seider (a standout QB in college). Seider liked what he saw and felt; Potts says he throws a soft ball. And even though Potts had never played QB at any level of football, Penn State installed the HB pass into the game plan just days before the contest. It was a good call — and points out that football can be fun at any level. Potts, who faced some medical issues as a Gopher, deserves the accolades and spotlight.
14. Penn State is streaking two ways. Against Illinois, the Nittany Lions extended a pair of streaks that are currently tops in major college football:
• 30 points – 10 consecutive games
• 6+ tackles for a loss – 11 consecutive games
15. Illinois pushed for an Orange Out on Saturday. Watch the hype video here. And while the student section readily and nearly fully complied, the rest of Memorial Stadium was a bit spotty. The announced crowd was 49,099, but there were large pockets of empty seats — capacity is 60,070 — and it was not the least bit of a hostile environment.
16. As we’ve heard more than once, Franklin is not happy about the Big Ten’s propensity to have Penn State start its Big Ten Conference season on the road. CJF is correct; it is a thing. Counting Saturday in Champaign: In 31 seasons in the Big Ten, Penn State has started conference play on the road 21 times. Franklin has made the most of a bad thing. In 10 years, he is 7-2 in Big Ten season openers on the road. He’s started conference play in Beaver Stadium just once — in 2015, a 28-3 win over Rutgers.
17. Overall, Penn State is 12-9 in B10 season-openers on the road and just 5-5 at home. By head coach, here are the numbers for conference openers:
Franklin — 8-2 overall; 1-0 home, 7-2 away
Bill O’Brien — 1-1 overall, 1-1 away
Joe Paterno — 8-11 overall; 4-5 home, 4-6 away
18. New Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti showed up at the scene of the (scheduling) whine on Saturday, glad-handing fans, media and school officials. (Not sure if he and Penn State AD Pat Kraft talked B10 openers or not.) I did shake Petitti’s hand and in a brief chat extracted a promise that Petitti would come to my Penn State Comm170 “Sports Industry” class to guest lecture. I see that as binding and I am emailing his staff on Monday. Petitti has a long and strong big-time sports resume, with stops at ABC, NBC and CBS, and several years as the COO of Major League Baseball.
19. Hidden number, buried deep in the final official statistics of the game on Saturday: Penn State’s average distance to go on third down was 7.4 yards. Find that stat, plus lots of good hidden-numbers, at StatBroadcast.com — it is where beat writers go during, and after, games to stay apprised of what is going on during Penn State games.
20. Another ugly stat category for Penn State on Saturday: PENALTIES. Penn State was flagged for four penalties on offense — three by the offensive line trio of Olu Fashanu, Hunter Nourzad and Caedan Wallace. (A reason, in part, for the 7.4 yards on third down). And it had three on defense. Most disturbing were the personal foul penalties on WR KeAndre Lambert-Smith and the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Dvon Ellies. Both are vets and should know — and do — better.
21. Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt get most of the publicity when it comes to the FOX Big Noon broadcasting team. But sideline reporter Jenny Taft may work harder than either of them. Here is her “office” for the day on Saturday, along the sidelines just past the Illinois bench. And you think your remote office makes work seem like a camping trip?
22. Red Grange. No name is more revered on the Illinois campus than the Galloping Ghost, old No. 77. His image is everywhere. And his statue is the centerpiece of the stadium experience — as the lead photo for today’s All-22 indicates; I took the picture on Friday night. It was emotionally moving, with the majestic brick Memorial Stadium all lit up. The stadium, one of my favorites in the Big Ten, was built 100 years ago, as a memorial to Illinois men and women who gave their lives for their country during World War I.
Harold Grange was a three-time All-American HB (1923-25) and a national idol. Against Michigan in 1924, he had TD runs of 44, 56, 67 and 95 yards — in the first quarter. In the second half, he ran and passed for additional touchdowns on the way to a 39-14 victory.
During a timeout at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, there was a race between a kid dressed up as Red Grange and a regular student. “Red Grange” blistered, winning a 100-yard race by over 25 yards, drawing one of the biggest cheers of the day. Makes me think that Penn State should get John Cappelletti — its only Heisman Trophy winner — on the field one final time in Beaver Stadium.