CHAMPAIGN - Saturday's storyline in Happy Valley seemed so clear before the season.
Illinois vs. Penn State really would be Wes Lunt vs. Christian Hackenberg, two future NFL quarterbacks attempting to lead program revivals.
While those pocket passers still loom large, most of the game's focus -- and most of the game's NFL talent -- lies in the trenches as an improved Illinois defensive line attempts to make as big of an impact as a PSU's dominant defensive line.
Penn State (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) leads the FBS with 31 sacks and features one of the best defensive lines in the country.
PSU senior defensive end Carl Nassib leads the FBS in both tackles for loss (17.5) and sacks (13.5), but massive junior nose tackle Austin Johnson (49 tackles, 9.0 TFLs) is the projected first-round talent on the frontline. And senior Anthony Zettel (35 tackles, 9.0 TFLs) also is a projected draft pick.
They'll face off against an Illini (4-3, 1-2) offense -- that thanks to injuries is even more reliant on Lunt (1,702 passing yards, 57.9 completion percentage, 9 TDs, 3 INTs) -- that has taken just eight sacks in seven games (tied for 15th fewest among FBS teams), thanks in part to a plus pass-protecting Illini offensive line and in part to Lunt's quick release and decision-making.
"I think one of the real challenges of this game is their pass protection, which is one of the better in the conference," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "A combination of them protecting him and him getting rid of the ball, and our defense and our defensive line in getting pressure on the quarterback. It's our strength versus their strength. So it will be an interesting challenge."
The Illini offense already has been tested by dominant defenseman. During the last three conference games, Illinois has faced Nebraska defensive tackle Maliek Collins, a likely first-round pick; Iowa defensive end Drew Ott (a likely All-Big Ten pick before his season-ending knee injury) and Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson (a deserving All-Big Ten pick); and Wisconsin's top pass rushers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel.
The Illini allowed two sacks against Nebraska, three against Iowa and none against Wisconsin.
"The big complaint (about the Big Ten) when I first came here was the defensive lines in this league weren't like the SEC," Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit said. "That was the big difference between the SEC and the Big Ten. Well, I tell you what, I see that being way different. Every week, there's (great) guys on the other side. ...This week, it's the exact same way."
The Illini defensive line has produced 22 fewer sacks than Penn State's front four, but that stat is a bit deceiving. The Illini front four has been disruptive -- it ranks tied for 11th in the FBS in tackles for loss -- and has been the key to the Illini's rise to a respectable, competitive Big Ten defense (seventh among B1G teams in scoring defense).
Senior defensive end Jihad Ward, a strong run stuffer, has drawn the attention of several NFL scouts, and juniors Dawuane Smoot (11.5 TFLs, 5.0 sacks) and Chunky Clements (8.5 TFLs) are now NFL prospects, as well.
"I think they're as impressive on the defensive line as we've seen this year," Franklin said. "That's going to be a real challenge for us."
That's because the Penn State offensive line is one of the worst in the country at protecting its Hackenberg (1,521 passing yards, 51.9 percent, 11 TDs, 2 INTs), allowing 3.5 sacks per game (tied for third worst in the FBS).The Illini have never had a better chance to up those sack totals and make game-changing plays.
"Any time you're getting sacks, to me it's a collective effort," Illini defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "The back end's playing well. The front's getting off the ball. The linebackers are playing good in zone principles or man or whatever it may be. So I think if everyone does their job, hopefully we have the chance to get some pressure on them."
The story of Saturday's game still might come down to the talented pocket passers.
Lunt must carry an injury-ravaged Illini offense. Hackenberg, who has more talented skill players around him (especially freshman running back Saquon Barkley), must continue to take care of the ball and muster enough big plays to give his defense a chance.
But the story of Saturday's game now more likely focuses on which quarterback's jersey stays cleaner.
"It's typical Big Ten," Cubit said. "You got to be physical but you also have to pass protect. You have to protect Wes again."