Game Balls and Helmet Stickers: Illini

Game Balls and Helmet Stickers: Illini

39-0. Take a second and let that sink in.....39-0. Ironic that on a Halloween afternoon, Penn State football was, well, a scary kind of good. It would be especially frightening to be a future opponent and see the slaughter that the Nittany Lions just handed Illinois. Aside from a few miscues in the kicking game, a team that was left for dead way back in early September managed to finally put it all together at the same time, on the same field and in a game that mattered. They took the fight out of the Fighting Illini with a few tricks up their sleeve and dished out a whole lot of treats to the fans during the next to last home game of the 2015 season.

It was a moment we have all been waiting for. Ever since the debacle at the hands of Temple, there has been a line drawn in the sand in regards to what direction Penn State was headed. Those on the side of patience and those hanging by the threads of panic. Under the circumstances and given the recent adversity over the past four seasons, both sides are completely understandable and justified. Let's be honest, who knew back on September 5th that our little brother in Philly would be undefeated and taking the primetime slot on Halloween night, giving mighty Notre Dame (note the sarcasm, please) all they could possibly handle? I know I didn't and I'd be willing to bet you didn’t either. Today, despite their last-minute loss to the Irish, our defeat to Temple doesn't sting quite as bad as it did at the start the season.

As much as it pains me to admit, it's conceivably possible that we got beat by the better team that day. It has been a slow and grueling process at times. A flash of hope here. A glimpse of brilliance there. Two steps forward, and then a huge step back. On Saturday afternoon in Happy Valley, we witnessed the sweet taste of progress. The fruits of labor, hard work, and determination all meshed together as one. On the Road to Redemption, Penn State made a small statement, opened some eyes across the country and gave its fan base no other option than unity in the aftermath of its Halloween massacre. On to the Game Ball and Helmet Stickers....

A week ago in Baltimore, the vaunted and always stout Penn State defense faced some very rare questions after the 31-30 shoot-out with Maryland. Had they lost their edge? Had opponents figured out a way to beat them? Were the Wild Dogs losing their bite? Not only did they respond and rise to the occasion, they served notice that the Nittany Lion D is a force to be reckoned with. They posted Penn State’s first shutout since Kent State in 2013 and State’s first shutout of a Big Ten opponent since blanking Minnesota in 2009. Not once on the day did the Illini cross the 40 yard line. They held their high-powered passing game to just 130 yards in the air and 152 overall. The nation’s leader in sacks recorded four more on the day. It was total domination plain and simple. From top to bottom, from the Wild Dogs, to Linebacker U, to the No Fly Zone, everyone had a hand in this one. Today's Game Ball goes to none other than the Penn State Defense.

Whether he is heading towards the end of his career in Blue and White or not, Christian Hackenberg is heating up and that spells trouble for whoever has to cross his path. 21-29 ,266 yards, 2 TD's passing. He even added a new wrinkle to his resume by catching a TD. Not bad for a day’s work and certainly enough to gain that man another Helmet Sticker. The day wouldn't be complete without another Saquon Barkley hurdle. 152 all-purpose yards and a Lion-leap into the end zone on the day for the freshman sensation earns him another Helmet Sticker as well. Chris Godwin continued his dominance, as did DaeSean Hamilton. Geno Lewis caught a nice fade in the end zone for the second week in a row. Nick Scott gets a helmet sticker for throwing the pass that has now made Hack a receiving threat and Mark Allen showcased his speed and elusiveness on a fourth-quarter TD of his own. Last, but not least and at the risk of getting some bad comments, I give a helmet sticker to the much maligned OC, John Donovan. He's taken more heat this year and last than anyone. On Saturday, he opened up that playbook and put a hot dagger in the heart of Illinois.

As I mentioned in my pregame post last week, Illinois is in no way a rival of ours. And yet, they have found themselves woven within our web of Big Ten Conference history and highlights. Whether it be "The Drive" in '94, the LaVar Leap of '99, JoePa's 409 in 2011, or their attempt to poach a fallen Lion in 2012, the Fighting Illini have found themselves on the wrong side of history. Only time will tell if the Halloween Massacre of 2015 proves to be the game that sprung us back into the national spotlight. As it stands, Penn State is 7-2 and playing with a newfound momentum with three games left in the regular season. Not just any three games, mind you, but games that are destined to separate the men from the boys. In fact, the nation’s #2 ranked most brutal end of season stretch. After this week’s slaughter in Happy Valley, Penn State stands a solid chance to make a run that no one expected back on September 5th in Philly. And that, my friends, is as sure a sign of progress as one could possibly see.