CHAMPAIGN Illinois asked fans to stripe the stadium for Saturdays game against Penn State. The visual effect in Memorial Stadium was wiped out by the fourth quarter, as the sight of empty seats overtook any resemblance of striping.
It is hard to blame Illinois fans for heading to the exit after the Illinis dispiriting loss to the Nittany Lions, 35-7, however.
After the game the Illini had no excuses for their poor play, which included two turnovers and 69 yards of penalties.
That we are disappointed is the least you could say about this game, Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. Its to step up, to see what this football team is all about and move forward. Weve got to.
Illinois debuted a new look on Saturday, showing off the teams matte blue helmet, which was not supposed to be worn until 2013. If moving up the helmets debut was an attempt to change the look of the team, though, the Illinois defense did not get the memo.
Things looked good for the defense early after a quick three-and-out, but a muffed punt gave Penn State the ball back deep in Illini territory. Another good stop was canceled by a running into the kicker penalty.
With a second chance at the endzone, Zack Zwinak made Illinois pay, scoring on a one-yard run at 10:41 in the first quarter, putting PSU up 7-0 early on.
The Illinois defense continued to struggle on PSUs second drive. Another mental error on the first play of the drive, a targeting the head penalty, moved the Nittany Lions into Illinois territory. From there quarterback Matt McGloin exploited holes in the Illinois secondary with ease.
He moved his team down to first and goal from the one-yard line and, two plays later, punched it in himself. With the PAT, Penn State went in front 14-0 with less than six minutes elapsed in the game.
The Illinois offense finally found its legs on the third drive of the game. Donovonn Young found space around the left on first down and marched 52 yards downfield, setting the Illini up at the Penn State 11 yard line. Illinois tried to keep the momentum going, but found no space to run and were forced to go for a field goal.
Taylor Zalewski had been nearly automatic since replacing Nick Immekus, but he was left holding his head in his hands as his 26-yard field goal went wide of the mark late in the first quarter.
Despite the missed field goal, the Illinois offense continued to improve in the second quarter. On their first drive of the period, Scheelhaase stepped up and completed to passes for first downs and then ran the ball for the first time in the game, picking up seven yards. The drive would be stamped out, however, when Penn State came up with a stop on fourth down at their own 28.
Four times on Saturday Illinois went inside the PSU 30-yard line and failed to convert. The problem was troubling for Beckman.
Penn State did a great job of coming here and playing physical football, but when you get the ball inside the 30, in the redzone, thats the key to the game. We have to come up with points, with touchdowns, he said.
Penn State capitalized on Illinois failure to convert well, and three minutes after taking possession, McGloin found Matt Lehman over the middle for a 21-yard touchdown reception.
Scheelhaase led his team down to the four-yard line of PSU on the next drive, but once again could not finish the drive.
On fourth and goal he threw the ball directly into PSU linebacker Michael Mautis hands on the goalline. The big man hustled 99 yards before being brought down by Miles Osei with one second remaining in the first half. Penn State lined up for a field goal, but had it blocked by VAngelo Bentley, bringing the first half to a wild end, the Nittany Lions leading the hosts 21-0.
On the first drive of the second half Scheelhaase took a hard hit, high and low, and limped off the field. He would return after one play but would not have a first down in him.
The punt by Justin DuVernois was a beauty, trapping PSU at their own one. From there the Illinois defense showed a flash of its 2011 greatness, allowing just two yards of offense for the Nittany Lions and forcing a punt.
With starting position in the PSU half, Scheelhaase shrugged off any questions about his ankle and quickly got Illinois on the scoreboard.
On second down he found Josh Ferguson over the middle for a 22-yard reception. Then he passed to Ferguson in the backfield on first down and the running back picked out a wide-open Spencer Harris for a 22-yard touchdown over the right side.
With the touchdown, Illinois cut their deficit to just two touchdowns, 21-7 with 10:22 to go in the third quarter.
The Illinois defense came up with another big stop on the ensuing Penn State drive, this time forcing a turnover on downs by sacking McGloin on fourth and five from the Illinois 16. Their hard work went for naught, though, as the Illinois offense went three-and-out on the ensuing possession.
McGloin would not be stopped as easily on the next Penn State drive. He went 3 for 3 on the drive and finished with another one-yard touchdown run, putting PSU ahead 28-7 with three minutes left in the third quarter.
A second pick of Scheelhaase by Mauti late in the third quarter sealed the fate of the Illini. On the PSU drive, Zwinak scored his second touchdown of the game from a yard out, bringing the score to its final 35-7 tally.
After the game, Beckman was more introspective about his team. He acknowledged that having a number of players injured certainly hurt, but he cast blame for the loss on himself and vowed to work to get the team better.
We cant turn the football over, weve got to move the football better, and weve got to tackle and do the things we feel are necessary for us to be successful, he said. Were just not getting those done the last two weeks.
Ahead of the Illinis trip to Wisconsin next Saturday, Beckman targeted physicality as an area that needed immediate improvement.
We know were going to be playing some physical football teams here coming up, and weve just got to become a more physical football team and do what we need to do, he said.
Injuries have played a big part in his teams lack of imposing physical stature, however, and he acknowledged that fact as well. Thats kind of a double-edged sword right now getting more physical and staying healthy, but thats one of the things were going to have to address.