STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Now that conference play is here, James Franklin knows his team won’t likely get away with the mistakes it’s made in three wins up to this point.
The No. 10 Nittany Lions’ last outing — a 63-10 beat down against Kent State — featured too many errors for Franklin to recognize it as an ideal offensive showcase despite racking up 643 yards with eight different players having a hand in at least one touchdown.
“There’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s on that tape that’s ugly and smells bad and winning sometimes is like the deodorant that covers up the funk,” Franklin said after the win. “It doesn’t mean that you still can’t correct the issues and the problems because they’re there.”
And Franklin has less time to do so with the Big Ten opener on Friday night at Illinois. Thankfully, he said Penn State was able to pull most of its starters early enough in the third quarter to give them a bit of a rest before beginning a short week to prepare.
Franklin usually gives players Mondays off, but they found themselves spending their usual off day in team meetings to start the week where they revisited their miscues from Saturday.
Those included two fumbles, a handful of dropped passes and nine penalties for 109 yards — three of those washed out long touchdowns.
“That’s something that’s plagued us,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said. “Penalties taking back big plays. But in the moment, if it’s a hold or something up front, it’s just talking to that guy, being like, ‘Hey, move on to the next one’ making sure they’re not letting it affect them too much.”
McSorley’s dual-threat abilities have masked some of the underlying issues.
He ran for three touchdowns and passed for two more against the Golden Flashes while becoming the program leader in touchdowns by a quarterback and just the second Penn State signal-caller to run for 1,000 career yards.
He’d have more yards through the air if his wideouts could hold onto the ball. Juwan Johnson, DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk — three of the team’s top four wideouts — have all dropped at least two passes so far.
The belief should be pretty high considering the fact that their rushing attack has produced 200-plus yards in six-straight games and who their opponents will be.
The Illini haven’t beaten a Big Ten opponents since Nov. 5, 2016 and are allowing on average 480 yards per game. They were just roasted for 626 in a loss last weekend to South Florida.
Despite the numbers, the Illini got the start they wanted against the Bulls.
“After watching the video, I like a lot of things that we did in the game,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith told reporters on Monday. “All phases, special teams, offense, defense. But you don’t like the way we finished as a team.”
South Florida scored 18 unanswered points in the fourth quarter after trailing 19-7 through three.
Playing the second half at the same level or better than the first will be the big challenge for Illinois. It seems more daunting considering the Nittany Lions haven’t allowed a second-half score since Appalachian State poured 28 on them in the fourth quarter of the season opener.
“I feel like we’re getting better and better every week,” linebacker Cam Brown said. “It sounds cliché, but obviously guys are getting more chemistry and starting to mesh well together. We are starting to get everything so going into week four I feel like we will be even better.”
Smith thinks that’s the case for his defense, too. While gouged, the Illinois defense has limited opposing scoring by creating seven turnovers including two interceptions per game. Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips and corner Jartavius Martin both have two picks.
“One more takeaway would have been the difference in that game (against USF),” Smith said. “We’re not there yet, but hopefully we’ll get there. We will keep harping on that to get that done.”