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Lions Locked In Struggle Against Illini

September 22, 2018

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Earlier in the week, Penn State coach James Franklin said turnovers would be the key to winning or losing against Illinois. They didn’t help the Nittany Lions separate themselves in the first half. The Illinois running game, though, might have been the bigger issue. The upstart Fighting Illini gashed the Penn State defense in the first half, rushing for 174 yards and averaging a whopping 7.9 yards per carry, to keep pace with a frantic Penn State offense that gave the No. 10 Nittany Lions a 21-17 lead at halftime Friday night at Memorial Stadium. At the end of the third quarter, Penn State led 28-24. Penn State running back Miles Sanders and quarterback Trace McSorley put on a rushing clinic of their own in the first half for Penn State, combining for 196 yards on 27 carries. But the defense had no answers for Illinois backs Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin. McSorley opened the game sharp as usual, despite an opening-drive miscue, a fumble by tight end Jonathan Holland that safety Michael Marchese recovered for the Illini to erase one potential Nittany Lions scoring drive. After Penn State forced a three-and-out, the Nittany Lions immediately organized a nine-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown run by Sanders on which he dragged an Illinois defender the final three yards over the goal line. On it, McSorley completed 3 of 4 pass attempts for 22 yards and picked up a key 7 yards on a third-and-7 scramble to the Fighting Illini 19 two plays before the Sanders run. After both teams traded missed field goals — a 55-yarder by Illinois senior Chase McLaughlin and a 44-yarder by Penn State freshman Jake Pinegar into a 10 mph wind — Illinois answered back, gashing the Nittany Lions defense on the ground. The Fighting Illini, in fact, never faced so much as a second down on the six-play drive. Epstein had gains of 18, 10 and 13 yards on the ground, and quarterback MJ Rivers II had two big completions to set up a 2-yard scoring run by Corbin that tied the game. McSorley, though, decided to give Illinois a taste of its own gameplan. Just before the first quarter ended, he converted a third-and-2 by faking a throw, then darting around right tackle behind a solid block from tight end Nick Bowers for a 16-yard gain before he was just tripped up at the Illini 37. And he didn’t stop running once the second quarter began. McSorley ran three more times on the drive — accounting for 43 rushing yards on the drive in all — before a pass interference call on nickel back Sydney Brown in the end zone gave the Nittany Lions the ball on the 2. Sanders, again, punched it in from there to hand the Nittany Lions a 14-7 edge. Sanders passed the 100-yard mark midway through the second quarter, and McSorley wasn’t far behind him. He bumped his total to 81 with a pair of 12-yard gains to set up a 5-yard strike to freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth that put Penn State up 14. But as the Nittany Lions piled up the rushing yards on offense, they sure did have problems preventing them on defense. Illinois put together another quick drive in response to the Freiermuth score — it took just 1:24 off the clock — with Corbin ripping off a 15-yard run, then a 51-yarder that set the Illini up inside the Penn State 10. A 6-yard scoring strike from Rivers to Ricky Fanning cut the deficit to 21-14. With 37 seconds left in the first half, Penn State had the opportunity to take that lead into the half. But, they gambled on a big play. And lost. McSorley launched a throw up the right sideline, into double coverage that receiver Brandon Polk couldn’t outmaneuver. Freshman safety Delano Ware picked it off at the Illinois 44 with 28 seconds left, and three carries by Corbin — led by a 12-yarder — put kicker Chase McLaughlin in position to drill a 42-yard kick heading into the half. Contact the writer: dcollins@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9125 @psubst on Twitter

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