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Handing Out the Grades Following Penn State Football’s Win Over Illinois

Penn State’s season has come to a close in commanding fashion to the tune of a 56-21 victory over Illinois for the fourth-straight win of the year, bringing the Nittany Lions’ record to 4-5. It wasn’t the season that anyone inside the Lasch Building expected, nor a season that fans will want to remember or repeat, but in the grand scope, the Nittany Lions managed to finish it off on a high note.

A bad year doesn’t always mean bad football, so here are the grades from Saturday as Penn State heads into the offseason.

Offense: B

It’s fitting, that Penn State’s final game of the season managed to be hodgepodge of good and bad on offense. For example, Penn State had 580 yards of offense, which just about everyone would agree is good. On the other hand, the Nittany Lions converted 4-of-12 attempts on third down – which just about everyone would agree is bad. Penn State needed an average of 5.3 yards per third down, which is fine. Nobody ever likes to hear ‘fine’ but it’s also not ‘bad’ because it is fine. That said, they went 3-for-3 on fourth down.

Penn State was – meh – in the second half, but very good in the second quarter scoring 21 points. The Nittany Lions had 56 yards of offense in the third quarter which was more annoying to watch than it was indicative of Illinois’ comeback chances. At the same time, Penn State scored touchdowns on five of six consecutive drives but then punted on five of six consecutive drives in the second half. 

So there was good and there was bad.

There was Jahan Dotson, who nearly set a new program single-game receptions record but did it in six catches by virtue of being faster than everyone else on the field. This is obviously not a bad thing, but when it comes to Sean Clifford, he threw for just 96 yards to anyone not named Jahan Dotson and completed just 10 passes to anyone falling under the same description.

On the ground Penn State racked up 253 yards, averaging 4.8 yards a carry. Keyvone Lee was solid with 85 yards on 19 carries while Caziah Holmes managed 77 on 12 carries of his own. There was also the ever popular Will Levis package which did the job, but nobody enjoys watching 38 yards on nine carries.

All told you shouldn’t knock an offense for getting the ball to an explosive player, and you shouldn’t hate on it for letting its running backs run the ball. That being said, it’s hard to score 56 points and have everyone feel lukewarm about everything that happened between those big explosive plays.

But hey, yards are good and so are points. Penn State also went 5-for-6 in the red zone with four touchdowns. Not too shabby.

Defense: B

Brandon Smith is a pretty good summary of Penn State’s defense in terms of how things go. Smith will either hit someone with the force of the Death Star, or miss them and give up extra yards. In turn, that’s pretty much Penn State’s defense in a nutshell. This group will give up a ton of points or yards, or on the other hand it will eventually make a ton of stops and suffocate lesser opponents.

Against any team worth its weight, the Nittany Lions would have been in trouble giving up 21 first quarter points. Thankfully, Illinois is not good at football and Brent Pry is better at making those needed adjustments on the fly. Say what you will about the bad quarters Penn State’s defense has had over the season, it has also put together plenty of good ones as well. This is an expert opinion.

Illinois converted four times on third down through 15 attempts needing an average of 7.1 yards per attempt. The Illini also averaged just over four yards a carry but ended the game with 74 yards of total offense after the first quarter. As you can imagine, this is not good if you want to win.

Brandon Smith led the way with eight tackles, Jaquan Brisker and Jesse Luketa each had seven tackles to follow behind.

All in all the first quarter wasn’t good but the season is over and if you’re going to hold a team to 74 yards through the final three quarters of play you’re doing something right.

Credit also to State College product Keaton Ellis for picking up a pretty interception early in the game.

Special Teams: A-

Jahan Dotson had a 50-yard return and Lamont Wade’s 100-yard kickoff return was a beauty that makes one wonder why it was so late in his career before he got to be the primary return man.

Jake Pinegar missed a 35-yard field goal, which was strange. Jordan Stout continues to be solid-enough in punting duties averaging just over 40 yards a pop including a beauty later on in the game.

A missed field goal hurts the grade but anytime you’re getting two big returns – one leading to an immediate touchdown and the other leading to an eventual touchdown – you can’t be too critical. Quite the finish for a group that started the season making mistakes and ending the season changing a game.

Coaching: A

Illinois is not good and Penn State has not been much better, but in terms of end-to-end effort in all three phases, this might have been Penn State’s best overall performance. A blowout win was sorely needed for this program and it might not have always been pretty, but you can’t hate on a staff for getting playmakers the ball and letting them run with it. Even if the Nittany Lions are running a watered down version of the offense they would like to run, this was the most flavorful version of that. Not a bad way to end the season.

Penn State’s staff ought to get credit for embracing what this team is, and what it isn’t, and what it’s not going to be in 2020. The equation wasn’t always pretty, but four-straight wins is no small feat for a team that started 0-5. A lot of that is players, but players on buy-in to coaches they believe in.

Overall: B

Let us not split too many hairs over a team that manages nearly 60 points, 600 yards and gives up next to nothing in return. There are worse performances end the year on.