PREVIEW: Illinois at Penn State

Illinois aims for second win in four trips to Penn State, where Illini have lost by just one score the previous two games

Illinois (4-3, 1-2 B1G) at

Penn State (6-2, 3-1)

Time: 11 a.m. CT

TV: ESPN2 - Beth Mowins (play by play), Anthony Becht (analyst) and Paul Carcaterra (sidelines)

Last week: Illinois lost 24-13 to Wisconsin; Penn State beat Maryland 31-30

Series: Penn State leads the series 17-5, including 8-1 at University Park; Illinois has won three of the last eight meetings

Vegas betting line: Penn State (-5), Over/under (43)

Injury report: Ferguson out; Dudek, Hardee officially out for season

Illini TE Tyler White out for season

KNOW YOUR ENEMY: FightOnState.com's Mark Brennan breaks down Penn State

Micheal Young: Inconsistent execution dooming Illini offense

Hack vs. Lunt? Nah, game's focus now on on the DL battles

Werner's Whits (Wednesday): On Jerry Kill and crowded coaching carousel's impact on Illini

Werner's Whits (Tuesday): Illini path to 7 wins and the injury impact on offense

Illini Coaching Hot List v4.0: MAC coaches, Cubit top Illini coaching candidates

Illini Commit Tracker: K James McCourt commits; what's next for Illini recruiting?

Werner: Weight on Wes Lunt to be near-perfect, carry Illini offense

Number-crunching

  • 3.5: Sacks allowed per game by Penn State, last among 14 Big Ten teams and tied for 124th among 127 FBS teams.
  • 5: Fumbles forced by PSU defensive end Carl Nassib, who is tied for the Big Ten lead in the stat.
  • 12.5:  Sacks for Nassib,who leads the Big Ten in the stat.
  • 17.5: Tackles for loss for Nassib, who leads the Big Ten in the stat.
  • 27.8: Third down conversion percentage for Penn State, which ranks last in the Big Ten in the stat.
  • 31: Sacks for Penn State this sesaon, which ranks first in the FBS -- four ahead of the second-ranked team.
  • 51.9: Completion percentage for PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a decline from his freshman (58.9) and sophomores (55.8) seasons.
  • 88.5: Red-zone scoring percentage for Penn State, 15.4 percent higher than Illinois -- which ranks last among Big Ten teams in the stat.
  • 91.3: Red-zone scoring percentage allowed by Penn State, which ranks worst in the Big Ten in the stat.
  • 151.3: Rushing yards per game for PSU running back Saquon Barkley during Big Ten games, second in the conference behind only OSU's Ezekiel Elliott.
  • 342.6: Yards per game this season for the Penn State offense, which ranks 13th among 14 Big Ten teams.

Nittany Lions to watch

1. Christian Hackenberg, QB: Once hyped as a possible top-10 draft pick following a fantastic freshman season, Hackenberg's play regressed as a sophomore in part due to losing Allen Robinson (now thriving in the NFL) and a few key offensive linemen. As a junior, his accuracy again has worsened but he is taking better care of the ball (11 touchdowns to two interceptions). He throws a great deep ball -- when his offensive line actually gives him time -- but struggles on the quick, short throws.

2. Saquon Barkley, RB: The 5-foot-11, 215-pound freshman (632 yards, 7.2 yards per carry) really is the guy Illinois must stop. He is strong and rarely goes down on first contact but fast enough to run by and around defenders to break off big chunks. After Barkley ran for 566 yards (8.4 ypc) in his previous four games, Maryland focused on first shutting down Barkley, and limited him to 65 yards on 20 carries. But that opened up big pass plays.

3. Chris Godwin, WR:  Sophomore DaeSean Hamilton was Hackenberg's top target last season (and he had five catches for 96 yards and a TD last week), but Godwin (34 catches, 628 yards) has been the big-play threat this season. The 6-foot-1 sophomore has seven catches for 238 yards over the last two weeks.

4. Carl Nassib, DE: The 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive end has benefited from so much attention on Zettel and Johnson and is terrorizing Big Ten backfields. He leads the FBS in both sacks (12.5) and tackles for loss (17.5). He's having a Whitney Mercilus season.

5. Anthony Zettel, DL: The 6-foot-4, 278-pound senior is an aggressive penetrator, who can play inside and outside on the line of scrimmage. He is tied for ninth in the Big Ten with 9.0 tackles for loss and is expected to be selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.

6. Austin Johnson, DTThe massive 6-foot-4, 325-pound redshirt junior takes up a lot of space but also disrupts the backfield (9.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks). Some project the future NFL nose tackle as a first- or second-round draft pick.

Keys to the game

1Attack with quick throws: The Penn State defensive line is one of the best in the country with three likely future pros. The Illini offensive line has done a great job of protecting Lunt, but Lunt also has done a good job of getting rid of the ball quickly. The Illini have struggled getting separation in press coverage, but Penn State's back seven is susceptible. The Illini can negate the pass rush and move the ball if Lunt and the receivers can execute quick routes.

2. Key on Barkley: And make Hackenberg beat you. That probably sounded odd coming into the season and probably sounds odd for a defense whose secondary has been susceptible to the pass, but Barkley has been the Penn State's engine this season. Slow him down, and it forces Hackenberg to drop back and either 1) improve his subpar accuracy in the quick-throw game, or 2) drop back and count on protection from his suspect offensive line. This strategy gave Maryland a chance against PSU.

3. Win third down: The Illini were crushed in this area against Wisconsin. The Badgers weren 9-for-16 on third down (despite the Illini ranking second among B1G team's in third-down defense) and Illinois was 3-for-12, and the Illini were doubled in time of possession. The Illini simply can't afford so many failures on third down.

Illini in the spotlight

Offense

Desmond Cain/Marchie Murdock/Dionte Taylor, WR: Teams know that the ball is going to Geronimo Allison, so the Illini's senior go-to receiver continues to face bracket coverage. That means the Illini are getting one-on-one battles elsewhere. And one of these Illini receivers has to make a big play in space.

Defense

Dawuane Smoot/Carroll Phillips, LEO: Penn State has the worst pass-blocking defensive line in the Big Ten. The Illini pass rushers -- you could add DT Chunky Clements -- have to feast on this group, make Hackenberg skittish and force a game-changing turnover (either by fumble or interception).

Prediction

Penn State is 6-2 but the Nittany Lions haven't beaten a team in the top-60 of the Sagarin Ratings, losing to No. 21 Temple and No. 1 Ohio State. Illinois, No. 61 in the Sagarin, would be their best win, slightly better than San Diego State (No. 65). These teams have similarities. Good defenses that have weak spots and talented pocket passers with limited weapons around them. For Penn State -- which clinched bowl eligibility two weeks earlier than last season -- this is a comfortable home test against a similar team, but it won't move the needle. PSU fans probably won't be impressed unless the Lions beat Michigan or Michigan State in the final two weeks.

For Illinois and Bill Cubit though, this feels like the pivot game. Without this one, the road to seven wins -- and possibly for Cubit, the road to the permanent job -- looks blocked. Illinois should be favored at Purdue and probably at Minnesota. If healthy, I'd pick the Illini to win this one. The Illini defense should keep the Illini in it into the fourth quarterback, but without Josh Ferguson and Mikey Dudek, quarterback Wes Lunt likely must play his best game (and be near-perfect) for Illinois to pull off the road upset. That'll be  tough against that NFL -- I mean, Penn State -- defensive line.

Penn State 21, Illinois 16


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