STATE COLLEGE - Big Ten “Championship Week,” in Happy Valley amounted to unleashing Jahan Dotson against an Illinois defense with only a reported 18 scholarship layers in uniform.
What resulted was explosive, spectacular, and predictable.
Penn State’s flaws weren’t fixed or hidden or even addressed here Saturday. They were run over, past and through by Dotson, a junior wide receiver who aced the NFL audition this game amounted to.
The Nittany Lions beat Illinois 56-21, winning their fourth straight after an 0-5 start to this unsightly and unprecedented season.
“I’m proud of everybody for battling through,’’ Franklin said. “I appreciate the resilience this team showed - the trainers, the coaches, and staff, everybody.’’
Dotson went 75 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first snap. He finished with six receptions for 189 yards and two touchdowns, plus a 50-yard punt return, for a total of 239 all-purpose yards, before essentially shutting it down at halftime.
A single NFL scout, from the Philadelphia Eagles, watched from the press box. He packed up and left at the half. Maybe he knew the show was over, or maybe he’d seen all he needed to.
The Lions finished with 580 yards. It was in some ways the kind of game Penn State usually has in early September, when an Akron or Kent State is the opponent.
“It’s good to have a game like this and get a bunch of guys in,’’ Franklin said. “It creates a healthy locker room.’’
It looked like summer seven-on-seven for a while. By the time the game was 5:10 old, there had been a 102-yard kickoff return (by Penn State’s Lamont Wade), that 75-yard touchdown pass, a 33-yard play that involved passes (one technically a lateral) from two quarterbacks, a 64-yard run, two turnovers and 28 points.
Illinois (2-5) had nothing obvious to play for. It was freezing at the Beav. Illinois has fired its head coach, Lovie Smith, six days previous. His interim replacement was assistant Rod Smith. The long-term guy, familiar Big Ten name Bret Bielema, was in the stadium Saturday, but not involved, just hours after his hiring was announced.
The Illini scrapped for a while, though, as Penn State’s defense exhausted much on its giant missed-tackle quota very early. The Illini actually led, 21-14 in the middle of the first quarter.
It turned hard soon after that. Dotson opened the second quarter with a 50-yard punt return. Then the Lions were able to run the ball, slow the game down and catch their breath.
A 15-play, 91-yard touchdown drive, featuring freshman RB Keyvone Lee, drained away most of the suspense.
Penn State outgained Illinois in the quarter, 231-30.
There were plenty of heroes. Quarterback Sean Clifford fumbled on a planned running play early, setting up an Illinois touchdown. After that, though, Clifford delivered his best game of the year, completed 16 of 22 throws for 285 yards, a pair of TDs and a 211.5 rating.
True freshman Lee and Caziah Holmes were the only scholarship RBs available. They combined for 162 yards, four pass receptions and three TDs. The tight ends, redshirt freshman Brenton Strange and true freshman Theo Johnson, combined for six catches.
These guys also block people. Penn State was able to use heavy formations (six offensive linemen and two TEs at time, plus the extra blocker effectively created when running QB Will Levis is out there) to do the one essential thing from which good offense always flows: run the ball straight ahead when everyone in the house knows that’s what you have in mind.
Of course, a depleted opponent had a lot to do with that. Illinois was missing at least 12 rotations players, almost all of the defensive side, due to the usual litany of injuries, opt-outs and COVID-19 concerns.
In 2020, everything comes with an asterisk.