Penn State @ Illinois: A Preview

The Fighting Illini football season continues on Saturday with the Illini looking to make a statement after the bye week when they welcome Penn State to Champaign, IL in a rare Big Ten night game.'s Brad Leshyn breaks down the Penn State Nittany Lions in this game preview.

Illinois will celebrate Homecoming for the 95th time by hosting Penn State under the lights in front of a national television audience. Illinois is one of the first Universities to celebrate Homecoming, and welcomes PSU as a Homecoming opponent for the first time. After a 36-13 loss at the hands of Indiana, the Illini had a week off to ponder that debacle and, hopefully, to somehow bottle up the spark they found in the first two games of the season. The 20-point comeback against the State University of New Jersey seems so long ago, doesn't it? Joe Paterno has turned the Nittany Lion ship around and will be ready to avenge last week's last-second heartbreaking loss to Michigan. Their defense is among the nation's best and will test an Illini offense that has struggled to make plays down the field.

Head Coach
This season marks Joe Paterno's 40th at the helm and 56th as a member of the Penn State coaching staff. Only Amos Alonzo Stagg, who coached at the University of Chicago for 41 years, roamed the sideline longer than JoePa. His 349 career wins rank behind only Bobby Bowden's 356, and no coach has appeared in more bowl games (31) or won more post-season games (21) than Paterno. Since he was hired as head coach in 1966, there have been 766 head coaching changes in Division I and his tenure has spanned eight Presidential administrations.

While many seem to think at age 78 it is time for him to hang up his flood pants, he has finally adapted to modern football and realized that speed kills. Instead of the bruising running attacks led by the likes of Franco Harris, he has found ways to get the football into the hands of speedy game-breakers like freshmen Derrick Williams and Justin King. King and Williams also graduated high school early enough to join the Lions for spring practice, a concept Paterno had frowned upon as he's notorious for not rushing his young talent onto the field. The electric youth that has infused this year's edition has likely given an old coach new life, so expect to have JoePa roaming the sidelines for years to come.

Offensive Preview
Hey, Penn State! Welcome to the 21st century! A big reason for the Penn State resurgence has been the infusion of speed and athleticism to an offense that has been staid for quite some time. For the first time in his career, QB Michael Robinson has been able to settle in at one position. In his previous three years, he has taken snaps at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and has even returned a handful of punts. Last spring, he was finally placed permanently under center and this stability has helped him become one of the more exciting players in the Big Ten. On the season, he has thrown for 1,347 yards and nine TDs while also rushing for 405 yards (second on the team) and a team high seven TDs. Earlier this season, he became the first Nittany Lion to surpass both 1,000 rushing and passing for a career. His three-yard TD run with 0:53 left last week put the Lions ahead before a defensive breakdown allowed Michigan to pull out the last second victory.

The youth has certainly been served in State College, as four freshman WRs have given the program a jolt of life that has been lacking for several years. Redshirt freshman Deon Butler and true freshmen Derrick Williams, Justin King, and Jordan Norwood have touched the ball a combined 110 times thus far and have accounted for 41 percent of the Nittany Lions 2,900 yards of total offense and an impressive 12 yards per touch. Thanks in large part to these four, the offense has produced nine TD passes over 20 yards this season, which is more than 2003 and 2004 combined. Prior to suffering a season ending broken arm last week, Derrick Williams had been living up to his billing as the top rated recruit in the country. He leads the Lions with 668 total yards and 22 catches, while Justin King averages 17.8 yards per touch. All told, these four have 10 TDs on the year, with Butler and Williams leading the way with four apiece.

Lost in the shuffle is RB Tony Hunt, who, with 102 yards against Michigan, now has 641 yards on the year. His 102-yard effort was the fifth time he has eclipsed the century mark in his career, and the third time this year. He is on the pace to post the 15th 1,000 yard season in Penn State history and become only the 11th player, and first since Larry Johnson in 2002, to accomplish the feat.

Defensive Preview
The strength of this football team remains on the defensive side of the football. Despite an inept offense, the defense kept PSU in most games last year as they were the only defense in the country to not allow more than 21 points in a game. Nine of those players return, and a tenth, S Chris Harrell, was a starter in 2003 but missed last year due to a neck injury. This is a senior-laden unit, yet it is led by a junior. LB Paul Posluszny is the leading tackler with 82, and he has also accumulated 6 ½ TFL and two sacks. After recording 14 tackles vs. Ohio State on October 10, he became the Big Ten first player to be selected a player of the week for three consecutive weeks. Only Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald 1995) and Wisconsin's Tim Burke (1998) have won the award that many times in one season. Fellow LB Tim Shaw has made 49 stops on the year, along with 3 sacks and 4 ½ TFL, and at one time held prep career records for rushing yards and TDs in the state of Michigan.

The defensive line is headlined by senior DE Tamba Hali. He rang up nine tackles and a sack last week vs. Michigan, and his six sacks on the season are second in the league behind only Ohio State's Bobby Carpenter. DT Jay Alford is seventh in the league with 4 ½ sacks, and DE Matthew Rice has taken down the QB three times to go along with six tackles behind line. For the year, the Lions have 23 sacks, which, aside from being second in the Big Ten behind only Ohio State, have already surpassed last year's total of 19.

The secondary is led by S Chris Harrell, who is second on the team with 57 tackles. He has also picked off a bass and broken up four others. Fellow S Calvin Lowry leads the team with two picks and is the third leading tackler with 51. CBs Alan Zemaitis and Anwar Phillips each have broken up five passes for a pass defense that surrenders only 205.9 yards per game.

Final Analysis
The Illini have historically had trouble defending mobile QBs, and Illini fans have bad memories of the otherwise forgettable Rashard Casey, who zigzagged across the field more times than we care to remember. The scary thing is Robinson is better and he also can throw it a little too. As always, to protect a leaky defense that gives up 457.8 yards a game and 6.8 per play, the Illini need to somehow be able to run the football and keep the dangerous Robinson on the bench. Kyle Hudson is emerging as a playmaker, but the Illini's biggest problem remains the lack of game-breaking talent. Freshman Derrick McPhearson, who was supposed to fill that role, is still gaining his footing after missing time with a broken leg. Due to this lack of downfield threats, the running game has been stymied and that was supposed to be the strength of the team. The PSU defense is as stout as they come, so don't expect an offensive breakthrough this week, as the Lions will come to town and give the Homecoming crowd little to cheer about as they return to Happy Valley with a 34-14 win.

Random Musings From My Couch
  • Only one word can adequately describe last weekend's USC-Notre Dame game: wow. Easily the best game I've ever witnessed live.
  • Speaking of 'wow,' that also sums up seeing Reggie Bush live and in person. If he doesn't win the Heisman, then the voters are not paying attention. Without him Notre Dame wins by double digits as the 'SC defense was unimpressive.
  • After road tripping to Knoxville and South Bend, University of Illinois football is truly small-time. Not that this is a news flash, but I was in awe of both UT and Notre Dame. Football tradition oozes out of each place.
  • Funny thing is, despite visiting two places where college football is religion, I cannot wait to go back home this weekend. Unfortunately, it's not because of the product on the field, but I still think Zook can get us there, but it's still a few years away.
  • As much as I love the Illini, I am not missing a single pitch of Game One as I may never see the White Sox in the World Series eve again. There will always be Illini games to watch or attend.
  • I'm still not an Ozzie Guillen fan, but God bless him, and all I can say to him is, 'thank you.'

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