The Penn State Nittany Lions travel to Champaign to play the Illini football team this Saturday evening for Homecoming. A good crowd is expected and will witness a 6-1, nationally ranked team and its Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno. Most people are assuming a PSU victory, but there are things Illinois can do to make the game competitive.
First of all, it is an excellent time to play the Nittany Lions. Their last two games have been against Ohio State at home and Michigan in Ann Arbor. They had to get emotionally fired up two consecutive weeks, and they almost pulled off both upsets. Their last second loss to Michigan had to be extremely devastating to them as they appeared to have the game won. The combination of consecutive weeks of high-intensity football and the sudden emotional reversal makes PSU a little more vulnerable now.
Hoping PSU will take Illinois lightly may be asking too much. After all, Paterno knows all the pitfalls and will do everything within his power to prevent a letdown. And he has a large number of upperclassmen who have the experience necessary to remain serious while preparing for Illinois. But there is a strong likelihood they will not be at peak efficiency. Illinois can take advantage of this, especially if it can get its Homecoming crowd competing along with them.
It is also true that Penn State lost its most exciting newcomer. Derrick Williams, the speedy and shifty receiver/running back who was named the top recruit in the country, broke his arm last week. Freshmen receivers Williams, Justin King, Jordan Norwood and redshirt freshman Deon Butler have added necessary speed and a deep threat to PSU's otherwise plodding attack. They accounted for 43% of PSU's offense and 40% of touchdowns through the first six games. Coach Ron Zook is quite familiar with Williams and King as he had commitments from them to attend Florida prior to his unceremonious firing. Williams will be missed.
Of course, Penn State is loaded otherwise. They have one of the best defenses in the Big 10, and it will be difficult to score frequently on them. Their front four defensively is good enough that few blitzes are needed. It they can get enough quarterback pressure, the remaining seven defenders can fill zones in pass coverage. This might actually be an advantage for Illinois as our receivers have trouble separating from bump-and-run cornerbacks. At least, there should be some pass completions in the seams of the zone coverages if quarterback Tim Brasic finds his receivers when they flash into the open.
More than likely, Penn State will try to shut down our running game with its powerful linebackers and then allow us to complete only short passes, assuming like our other recent opponents that we will self-destruct before scoring. It is essential that we take what PSU gives us and remain patient and mistake-free throughout long drives. It is also essential that we keep their defenders honest with a running game that can gain yardage when needed.
This will require better blocking at the point of attack and determined running to accomplish, but it is needed to help open up the passing lanes. It is hoped that Illinois used the bye week to find two blocking tight ends so we can use some power running formations. Without tight end blocking, a successful running game will be problematic. This has been a major problem for Illinois all year.
Illinois must also find a way to hit some deep passes. Kyle Hudson and Derrick McPhearson are likely our best chances for a deep threat, but McPhearson still hasn't been able to flash his top speed while recovering from a broken leg. Derrick has shown an extra gear in the past, but it may not manifest fully until next year. Kendrick Jones can also get deep, but it remains to be seen whether the coaches trust him enough to throw to him in key situations and whether Brasic wishes to throw to him.
Above all else, Illinois must be mistake-free. People have often accused Paterno's teams of being boring and predictable, but they are always intelligent and fundamentally sound. Penn State has lost some turnovers this year, so Illinois must create fumble and interception opportunities while holding onto the ball themselves. PSU forces you to play their way, so you have to be as good as they are at what they do to beat them consistently. The Illini may have to gamble at times, but all-out gambling will backfire.
Offensively, the Nittany Lions have a good offensive line and a quality running back and quarterback. Mike Robinson is a senior quarterback with much experience, but he is as much a running back as quarterback. He is such a good athlete that he has been employed at several positions over the years. Robinson's first and best position is quarterback, and he uses his powerful body and quick mind to advantage both as a runner and passer.
To stop Penn State, Illinois must stop Robinson. If we can contain his running (both planned and extemporaneous), we can limit PSU's offense. Of course, Illinois has had problems keeping quarterbacks from running or even putting enough pressure on them to force bad throws. But if we can make Robinson pass, we have a slight advantage because he does not have a great pass completion percentage. It is not a major advantage because he still completes more than 50% of his passes, but he is less efficient as a passer than as a clutch runner. Either way, Robinson can give Illinois many headaches if we are not totally committed to slowing him down.
Penn State does nothing flashy, but they are effective. They use a conservative offense designed to minimize mistakes, and they overpower and wear down their opposition a little at a time. They will still have some deep threats without Derrick Williams, but one big one is missing. If we can keep them from hitting some long plays, we can perhaps stay close to them throughout the game. And if we are close, even in a low scoring game, we have a chance.
It is Homecoming, so a good crowd is expected. We have had a bye week to heal our bruises, recover our self-esteem, and give our youngsters more time to get comfortable with the speed and complexity of college football. And we are getting Penn State on the rebound, which is the best intangible to have on our side. If Illinois can get some early confidence and momentum, Penn State will likely keep us in the game with their conservative approach. At that point, anything is possible.
Few if any experts or fans will give the Illini a chance for victory. So even a respectable score will satisfy the needs of many returning Alumni who hope to brag about their UI affiliation. But with a big contingent of recruits on hand (both for official and unofficial visits) and a national television audience looking on, it would be a fantastic time for a miracle.
Is a miracle possible with a team as young as the Illini? Let's all get out to Memorial Stadium Saturday evening and find out.
Penn State @ Illinois: Game Preview
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