Blame for Lions debacle not just on defense

Christian Hackenberg , Penn State's freshman quarterback, is expected to play against the Illini. GENE J. PUSKAR / AP
Christian Hackenberg , Penn State's freshman quarterback, is expected to play against the Illini. GENE J. PUSKAR / AP
Posted: November 03, 2013

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The numbers allowed last week by the Penn State defense - 63 points, 686 total yards - stand out like beacons in a fog.

However, lost in the amazement of how overmatched the defense looked was the play of the Nittany Lions offense, where the key numbers were 14 (points) and three (turnovers).

"We didn't put them in good situations," offensive tackle Garry Gilliam said. "There were turnovers in the red zone, fumbles, interceptions. We didn't get enough push and we didn't protect the quarterback. It all kind of bounces back. Us not scoring definitely puts more pressure on them. You can't blame a loss like that on the defense."

The Nittany Lions (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) seek to get well on both sides of the football Saturday against Illinois (3-4, 0-3) at Beaver Stadium. While it's true that coach Bill O'Brien has a 5-1 record the week after a defeat, the Lions need much more focus and attention to detail than they showed last week at No. 4 Ohio State.

The offense, which gets Christian Hackenberg back after the freshman quarterback sat out the last quarter-and-a-half against the Buckeyes with a shoulder injury, must be more productive. O'Brien hinted he might try to slow things down in spots instead of relying on a hurry-up tempo.

He cited Hackenberg's interception in the end zone on the Lions' first drive last week as an example.

"Inside the 20, we need to do a better job of slowing the game down, making sure we have the right play call in and making sure Christian is comfortable with it," O'Brien said Thursday night on his weekly radio show. "Elsewhere we can go fast. But we have to take into account our quarterback and what he's comfortable doing.

"Our time of possession is basically even with the other team but our drives aren't very long. We average about two minutes a drive. Sometimes when we play fast, I don't think it bodes well for the defense."

If the numbers are any indication, the Nittany Lions shouldn't have much trouble moving the ball against the Fighting Illini, who have lost 17 consecutive Big Ten games. Illinois ranks in the bottom 20 among FBS teams in average points (33.7) and total yards (457.7) allowed.

Defensively, the message is to simplify things for the players to avoid confusion. A common theme this season has been comments about "lack of communication" and "not on the same page" after the unit had been lit up. Seven games into the season, it's a disturbing trend.

"We weren't really confused," linebacker Mike Hull said, describing the Ohio State performance. "It's just sometimes where there's a lot of checks to make, some guys are doing one thing and other guys are doing another thing. You've got to play 11 guys as a unit."

The Illinois offense, one of the worst in the nation last year, has improved markedly, averaging 30.7 points under the leadership of its new coordinator, Delaware County native and former Widener coach Bill Cubit.


Illinois at Penn State

When: Saturday at noon.

Where: Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.

Records: Illinois (3-4, 0-3 Big Ten); Penn State (4-3, 1-2)

TV/Radio: ESPN; WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).

Coaches: Illinois, Tim Beckman (2d season, 5-14), Penn State, Bill O'Brien (2d season, 12-7).

Series: Penn State holds a 16-4 lead, including a 35-7 win last year in Champaign, Ill. Twelve of the victories have been vacated by NCAA sanctions.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

Penn State's pass defense, which allowed Ohio State's receivers far too much cushion catching the football last week, needs to be more aggressive and keep an eye on sophomore Josh Ferguson. Ferguson, one of the top receivers among the nation's running backs, leads the Fighting Illini with 25 catches and 361 yards.

The Nittany Lions did not try to exploit the poor rush defense of Indiana in a loss last month but should focus on running the football against an Illinois defense that allows 219 yards on the ground per game. Also, will Zach Zwinak, who has lost fumbles in each of his last two games, play very much for Penn State?

Illinois cornerback V'Angelo Bentley is expected back from an ankle injury and that's bad news for the Nittany Lions special teams. Bentley, a sophomore, is fourth in the nation in kickoff returns with a 30.8-yard average and the Lions rank 104th in defending such returns.

THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW

Illinois wide receiver Ryan Lankford, who is out for the season with a shoulder injury, is the son of former Penn State cornerback Paul Lankford.

One of Illinois' most inspirational players is the only Pennsylvanian on its roster - sixth-year senior offensive tackle Corey Lewis, a native of Cresco in the northeastern part of the state, who sat out 21/2 years after undergoing a total of five knee surgeries and started the first game of his career late last season.

- Joe Juliano


jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq

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