Illinois turns Memorial Stadium into the gaffe factory in 30-13 loss to No. 7 Penn State

Woe was anyone who watched the Illini shoot themselves in the foot, then in the other foot, then in the same two feet all over again during their Big Ten opener.

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Penn State v Illinois

Illinois QB Luke Altmyer is drilled by Penn State’s Adisa Isaac on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

CHAMPAIGN — Let’s start with the bad news: Illinois turned the ball over five times Saturday in a 30-13 loss to seventh-ranked Penn State, taking a game that might have been winnable and turning it into three sick, twisted hours of frustration while falling to 1-2, a start that should have all Illini fans deeply concerned.

And now, the good news: Seriously? What makes you think there is any?

Sorry, but woe was anyone who watched the Illini shoot themselves in the foot, then in the other foot, then in the same two feet all over again during their Big Ten opener.

It started on the first drive, when quarterback Luke Altmyer underthrew a wide-open Pat Bryant on what should have been an easy touchdown. Instead, the pass was incomplete, and the drive ended with a missed field goal.

The Illini’s second drive lasted three plays before running back Josh McCray fumbled. After that, the interceptions started, and they just wouldn’t stop. Altmyer, the transfer from Ole Miss, served up two of them on the Illini’s third and fourth possessions. And he would throw two more before being mercifully lifted from a 30-7 game with a little over a quarter left.

For those of you still trying to suss out the math, that’s four INTs, the most thrown by the Illini in one game since 2016. Against an opponent as good as the Nittany Lions (3-0) — who committed no turnovers — that’s a guaranteed “L.”

“That’s my fault,” coach Bret Bielema said. “When we recruit quarterbacks, I tell them for me as a head coach, it’s always going to be on my shoulders. So we didn’t have a good enough game plan for him to be successful, and I obviously want him to take these moments and grow.”

But there might be some cracks in Altmyer’s confidence coming out of this one, and there are all sorts of other pressing questions. What happened to the Illini who led the nation in takeaways during the 2022 regular season? How much is former star running back Chase Brown, who gashed defenses like no one on this year’s team seems capable of, going to be missed? And was last season’s 7-1 start the real deal or is the Illini’s 2-6 record over the eight games since more what Bielema’s program is about?

“We were a dollar short in many different ways,” Bielema said, “but I like this football team.”

Defensively, the Illini went nose-to-nose with Penn State and held their own. After the first two turnovers, the Nittany Lions had short fields but had to settle for field goals. They went three-and-out a bunch. It wasn’t because they were tired with the late-morning start or unenthused with a crowd that failed to top 50,000; it was because Illinois’ All-America defensive lineman, Jer’Zhan Newton, was wrecking their game plan. Newton was the best player on the field, and the whole “D” looked capable of getting on a roll in coming weeks.

After running back Reggie Love III lowered his shoulder and drove a defender into the end zone for the Illini’s first points late in the first half, it was a 13-7 game despite the Illini having turned Memorial Stadium into a gaffe factory.

It wasn’t that the Illini couldn’t hang physically with Penn State. They just couldn’t stop blowing it.

“We’ve just got to be better,” Love said. “It’s hard because Coach B tells us all the time there are three ways you can lose a game — penalties, mental errors and turnovers.”

The Illini won eight games in 2022, their most since the 2007 team won nine and got to the Rose Bowl. This squad — which squeaked past Toledo and lost badly at Kansas — is trying to set the bar higher but, to this point, hardly making a convincing go of it.

“I’d love to be 3-0,” Bielema said, “but I knew we’d have to battle our tails off to get to whatever record we can. I’m not happy to be 1-2, but we’ve learned a lot of really good lessons, and we’ve learned some things that can help us, I think, in the nine games ahead.”

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