Postscript, Penn State
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We can all picture the moments.
Tony Adams peeling off his man, reaching up and just barely getting his hands on a Jack Coan pass for the interception. Dre Brown pinballing off defenders as he fought his way into field goal range. James McCourt kicking it through the uprights before being mobbed by teammates and fans on the field.
Of course, there were more moments than just those, whether Donny Navarro splitting Wisconsin defenders for the Illini's first touchdown or Jake Hansen ripping the ball from Jonathan Taylor to keep the game within reach or Daniel Barker's big third-down conversion to keep the game-winning drive alive. If we're just talking about capital-m Moments, though, the aforementioned three stand out above the rest when reflecting on the Wisconsin game in 2019.
In his piece yesterday, Robert talked about the memorable moments from big road wins in the past 25 years. That Wisconsin game wasn't a road win, of course, but we could do the same with the Michigan State win a few weeks later -- Sydney Brown's pick-six (of a clearly-concussed Brian Lewerke), Josh Imatorbhebhe and the fourth-and-16 play, Brandon Peters rolling right and hitting Daniel Barker in the end zone. Moments.
The point is, every game worth remembering has a few Moments that stand out as we think back on them. Perhaps with some distance, the Penn State game will be no different. Maybe a few years from now we'll have what we've deemed as the game's few defining plays crystallized in our minds.
As we sit here roughly 48 hours from the game's end, though, I'm having trouble picturing what they will be. That's not to say there's a shortage of Moments from the game from which to choose. Rather, there are too many to try to boil down to a concise, "this play was a turning point in the game" list that we will be able to reference in years to come.
Like, Peters hitting a leaping Casey Washington makes the list, sure. Isaiah Williams willing his way into the end zone probably does, too. But what else makes the cut? And more importantly, what doesn't?
Do we allow Keith Randolph's display of strength, using one arm to corral 6-foot, 3-inch, 250-pound tight end Brenton Strange while engaged with an even bigger offensive lineman, to slowly fade from our minds? What about Khalan Tolson's pass breakup that set up the winning score? Do we forget the roles that Tarique Barnes and Josh McCray and Devon Witherspoon and even Artur Sitkowski played throughout the game?
When you search for a game, like "Illinois Penn State 2021," Google provides a box score that usually includes a link to a game recap video on YouTube. The YouTube video for the Michigan State comeback win in 2019 is 4:53. The video for the Wisconsin upset is 4:10. The Big Ten Network, which provides the videos for most of the recaps linked to by Google, has highlights down to a science.
The video for the Penn State victory is 8:31 long. It still doesn't play all the hits -- the Randolph play, for example, is absent, and the final seven overtimes only occupy about one minute and 15 seconds of the eight-and-a-half-minute video -- but the point is made.
Maybe we'll talk about a few key Moments, but maybe, instead, when reflecting on 2021 we'll talk about The Game.
-One thing that will almost certainly be lost from Saturday's game is the job Illinois defenders did on Jahan Dotson.
Dotson, who will almost certainly be no worse than a Day Two selection in next year's NFL Draft, should have been the focus of a Penn State offense that couldn't run the ball. And he was on their lone touchdown drive, catching two passes for 47 yards, including a 36-yard jump ball between three Illini defenders.
Both of those catches came with Alabama transfer Eddie Smith covering him, though -- Smith, who was also in coverage on the 42-yard slant caught by KeAndre Lambert-Smith for a touchdown later in the drive, was one of the few Illini who had a noticeably bad day at the office Saturday -- and Dotson was otherwise quiet. He finished with six catches for 69 yards on the afternoon.
It speaks to the larger point about the defense as a whole playing well, but that stood out as an example of how far the unit has come in recent weeks. Ryan Walters has the group playing at a very high level right now.
-I didn't watch the Iowa game, but it's hard to imagine the Penn State offense could have been worse off with someone other than visibly-compromised Sean Clifford under center. As noted, I didn't watch the Iowa game, though.
-Robert has noted his love for series, so in keeping with the theme, I should just include this line in every Postscript for the foreseeable future: Devon Witherspoon is an absolute stud.
-We don't need to nitpick anything after such a fun win, but one thing that was curious was the overtime decision to completely abandon the style of offense that got them there.
Throughout the game, they ran straight ahead with big packages, and gained more than three yards with relative ease. Then, when it mattered most, they ran the ball just twice in seven "two-point" overtime scenarios, and one was a sweep to Isaiah Williams. The other was a pistol-type handoff to Josh McCray that went horizontal and not much else.
I know the argument would be, running gets harder in situations where Penn State can load the box to attempt to stop a three-yard run. It was just shocking to not even see them try.
-I don't know where I read or heard it, but somewhere in recent weeks I came to understand that one of the big challenges for the offensive line was the switch to a zone blocking scheme. The zone scheme, where you're blocking guys in a designated space and not assigned specifically to one man, is a big switch and clearly can take time to master.
I posited Saturday that it felt like we were watching the zone scheme click for the offensive line in front of our eyes. The ease with which McCray and Chase Brown -- how am I 1,000 words in and just now mentioning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week Chase Brown? -- ripped off big gains on the ground was noteworthy, and on nearly every play you could see a lineman getting to the second level and making a block that helped the back get extra yardage. It's encouraging for what the offense might be able to do over the season's final month of games.
-It would be incredibly on-brand for Illinois to lose at home to Rutgers a week after such a monumental win, but we won't think those thoughts today. Today is a day for good vibes. Hail to the Orange.