Champaign, Il. — After trailing by three points early in the third quarter, Penn State, boosted by the performance of running back Miles Sanders, scored 42 unanswered points to take down Illinois 63-24 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. Friday night.
The rout was due in large part to the success the Nittany Lions had running the football against the Illini during their Big Ten opener. Penn State ran roughshod against Illinois out of the backfield to the tune of 387 total yards and three touchdowns, using a plethora of backs.
Of those 387 yards, 200 belonged to Sanders, who took over for Saquon Barkley this fall and has picked up right where the All-American left off. Sanders earned his first 200 yard game and now is only one behind Barkley’s career total at Penn State.
While he did the bulk of the work, Sanders was not the only one who had success running the football, as freshman running back Ricky Slade ran for 94 yards on 10 carries and found the end zone for two of Penn State’s nine touchdowns.
Even redshirt freshman Journey Brown got in on the scoring action in the fourth quarter with his first backfield action as a Nittany Lion.
Brown is the seventh player to score a rushing touchdown for Penn State on the season, which falls right in line with the resurgence of the Nittany Lions offensive line which played, arguably, their best game of the season.
But the biggest difference between this year’s running game and last year’s is rather simple: Penn State is finally able to go up field between the tackles.
Barkley loved being able to cut outside and stay outside the tackles. This year, however, the Nittany Lions backs have been able to work their way through interior holes created by a stout offensive line, which is by far the most improved position group on the field.
Sanders and Slade love making themselves small as they approach the line, then get large and explode through the hole. Once these two get to the second level, they’re always a threat to find the end zone.
In Barkley’s three years at Penn State, he did not have an offensive line that was as good as the one Sanders and Slade get to run behind this year — a lot of the reason Barkley liked running outside was because he was forced to as a result of a mediocre offensive line.
There were several times the last few seasons Barkley would be tackled for a loss attempting to do too much and escape tackles. With Sanders and Slade, that’s rarely the case and surely was not the case against Illinois.
It’s refreshing to see a different style of back for Penn State and it speaks volumes for the quality of backs in the Penn State arsenal, as well as the quality of play they’re currently getting out of their offensive line.
Aside from the opening game against Appalachian State and the first two quarters and change against the Illini, the Nittany Lions have not been challenged. They’re currently averaging 55.5 points per game through their first four games, scoring a total of 222.
That pace is going to fall back as Penn State gets further into the Big Ten schedule, starting with Ohio State coming to State College next weekend.
The beauty offensively for the Nittany Lions this season is they’re able to score at will and with ease. They’re outscoring opponents 142-35 in the second half this season and neither side of the ball is really firing on all cylinders.
Success in the run game opens up the passing game and vice versa and that’s exactly the recipe Penn State used in the second half as they scored on seven possessions in a row. Quarterback Trace McSorley threw for three touchdowns himself, yet only passed for 180 yards on the night.
With things going as well as they were on the ground, there was no need to take risks through the air, and with both the run game and passing game seemingly having success whenever they so choose, it makes the match up against the Buckeyes that much more intriguing.
Ohio State will be without All-Big Ten defensive end Nick Bosa when they visit Happy Valley for the primetime tilt next Saturday, and that could be the game-changer the Nittany Lions need to start Big Ten play 2-0.
Penn State needs to come out and set the tone early running the ball with their newfound downhill-style of football. Without Bosa, it should be easier for the Nittany Lions to get it established early to open up the field for the passing game, as they look to continue their success at home — where they’re unbeaten since 2016.