UNIVERSITY PARK — Christian Hackenberg went through his reads then made another.
The Penn State quarterback realized there was room to run up the middle with the goal line nearby. So he took off, side stepped an Illinois defender and lunged headfirst into the end zone for a nine-yard touchdown run to give his team a 14-0 lead on Saturday.
“They dropped back a lot of guys in coverage and I knew if I had a lane I could take it,” Hackenberg said.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien pointed out — plays like the one Hackenberg made on second-and-goal are just another phase of the game his young quarterback is still learning.
He's had the room to run before but Hackenberg, an 18-year-old true freshman, is learning on the fly and usually looking to make a play with his arm. But, Hackenberg attributes a majority of the 19 sacks he's taken this season to holding the ball too long in the pocket.
As Hackenberg has waited for receivers to come open down the field, defensive fronts have parted in front of him. He and O'Brien have sat down and the Penn State coach has pointed out instances where Hackenberg could have and can take advantage with his legs.
“He's a passer first, so he's trying to drive the ball down the field with a pass,” O'Brien said. “We have shown him on tape and worked with him in practice with some scramble drills. He can run. He is a good athlete and he took advantage of that on that play. I think we have to teach him to get his pads down now.”
When Hackenberg dove across the goal line he was nearly bowled over by a handful of Illinois defenders. Hackenberg was forced to leave the Ohio State game after taking multiple hits and experienced pain in his throwing shoulder.
That was the least of his worries against the Illini, however.
“I really wasn't thinking about my shoulder,” he said. “I was just thinking about getting in the end zone.”
Penn State's offensive line, especially the tackles, struggled mightily to protect Hackenberg against Ohio State. Not only did the front five keep its quarterback upright for most of the afternoon, they opened big holes for running back Bill Belton to gouge the Illinois defense.
Running behind blockers who consistently won battles at the line of scrimmage and beyond, Penn State running backs ran for the team's second most yards this season. Their 250 yards of output was just one yard shy of their season-high that came against Eastern Michigan.
Adam Gress showed off his versatility, making his first start at left tackle in place of Donovan Smith, who also got back into a groove once he returned to the lineup on Saturday. Gress was also in at left tackle on Penn State's first touchdown run — Belton's off-tackle run to the left side.
On the other side, Illinois' pass protection has not been good this season.
The Illini had given up 18 sacks coming into Saturday, but Penn State wasn't able to generate much pass rush against quarterback Nate Scheelhaase, who used three-step drops to neutralize Penn State's rush.
And as a result, the Penn State secondary wasn't able to keep Illinois receivers in check on three long second-half drives. On those drives, Illinois called 24 passing plays to just 13 running plays. On two touchdown drives, Illinois averaged at least six yards per completion as it took a 17-14 lead. Another long drive in which the Illini averaged 13 yards per completion ended at the goal line when Mike Hull broke up a fourth-and-goal pass.
Penalty flags accompanied an alarming number of plays for both teams as Illinois was flagged nine times for 71 yards and Penn State was penalized a season-high 11 times for 95 yards.
The Nittany Lions were flagged six times for personal fouls or for infractions that resulted in 15-yard punishments. A delay of game call turned a second-and-goal from the four-yard line for Penn State into the same scenario from the nine. A facemasking call turned a four-yard Illinois gain to a first down at midfield for the Illini. A roughing the passer call rescued Illinois from horrible clock management and allowed the Illini tto make field goal on an un-timed down to end the second quarter.
Previously, Penn State's season-high for penalties was five (four times). The most penalty yards Penn State had given up was 56 against Michigan.
Day to Remember
No Penn State running back since Larry Johnson in 2002 had cracked the 200-yard rushing mark until Belton did it with a carry in the fourth quarter.
Belton continues to get better for the Nittany Lions but his comments after the game revealed Belton will never forget his 201-yard rushing performance for another reason. Belton realized his fumble at the goal line in the fourth quarter nearly cost his team the game and he won't try to reach the ball out to break the plane of the end zone while wrapped up again.
Still, Belton has proven himself as Penn State's most reliable option at the position. His 36 carries were also a career high and prove he can handle a heavy workload.
Day to Forget
Illinois coach Tim Beckman is still winless in the Big Ten since he took over the program from Ron Zook.
He'll likely want to forget Saturday as his team had chances to win the game but couldn't get it done.
Illinois poorly managed the game and a few questionable play calls didn't help their efforts. A sideline interference penalty in the fourth quarter and a timeout called when Penn State had exhausted its supply were bizarre moves by the Illini coaching staff that only aided the Nittany Lions.
Key Play You Already Forgot
A one-yard gain in hardly a big deal unless it was the one-yard Zach Zwinak hammered away for on his first carry of the game in the second quarter Saturday.
It was crucial for Zwinak to get involved and work toward putting his fumble issues behind him. His first carry since a fumble against Ohio State was big for that reason.
Zwinak, who had avereage a fumble every 21 carrries, checked into the game wearing gloves for the first time in his career. He protected the ball well enough to earn another carry on second down and carried Illini in his typical rugged style for six yards. Overall, Zwinak earned four more carries for 25 yards.
Allen Robinson usually gets a report on his progress as he ascends up Penn State's all-time receiving records list from his mom.
After his 11-catch, 165-yard effort against the Illini moved him into fifth on Penn State's all-time receptions chart and fourth on its all-time receiving yardage list, Robinson was asked if his mom had told him yet where he is at in his pursuit of the records. When he said he hadn't talked to her yet, Robinson was asked by a reporter if he wanted to know.
“Nah, I'll find out from her,” he said.