Illinois @ Penn State: Preview

The University of Illinois football team is in need of a positive development to get back its confidence. Unfortunately, it may be hard-pressed to gain confidence while competing at Penn State this Saturday. Illinisports discusses Illini prospects in this article.

The Fighting Illini football team, reeling from two straight heart-breaking losses, now has the unenviable task of travelling to Penn State for their Homecoming festivities this Saturday. As the phrase goes, "Out of the frying pan and into the fire."

Penn State has struggled somewhat this season with a 4-3 record after laying claim to one of the top spots in the country last year. But they are still a formidable foe with outstanding athletes despite the loss of several key performers and eleven total starters to graduation. Their latest recruiting class was ranked by recruiting services as one of the top three in the country, and yet most of those youngsters are not yet getting significant playing time.

Without going too deeply into personnel, the Nittany Lions have a potential first round NFL draft pick in offensive tackle Levi Brown, an outstanding running back in Tony Hunt, and speed to burn at receiver. Defensively, they are loaded with competent linemen, their linebacker corps may be the best in the country and includes superstar Paul Posluszny, and their defensive backs have talent and speed as well. Attesting to the quality of their depth, Penn State freshman Phillip Taylor, a 340 pound man mountain who was rated the #1 defensive tackle in the country last year, saw his first action against Michigan last week after a fellow freshman was lost to injury. He would likely have been a starter from day 1 at Illinois and many other schools.

There is a question at this time about quarterbacking, but it appears both Anthony Morelli and second stringer Daryll Clark might be available for the Illini after going out with injuries against Michigan. Morelli was a high school All-American who is getting his first opportunity as a starter after backing up star Mike Robinson last year. He is learning how to put more touch on some balls and how to avoid throwing into coverage, and he performed well last week despite tremendous pressure brought upon him by Michigan's vaunted pass rush. How quickly he recovers from a mild concussion will determine his playing time and competency.

Daryll Clark has less experience than Morelli, but he has talent. Built like Robinson, Clark is a better runner than Morelli and would likely be used frequently in that capacity. If neither Morelli nor Clark can go, third stringer Paul Cianciolo is an upperclassman who finished up last week's game. Regardless, if Morelli is unavailable, Penn State's attack will be less efficient.

One thing that gives Illinois a chance in this game is Penn State's tendency toward conservative offensive game planning. They may become even more tentative due to doubts about their quarterback situation. Thus, it is expected they will be primarily a running team against Illinois. Exciting receivers Derrick Williams, Justin Norwood, and Deon Butler may wonder what it would be like to operate out of Illinois' spread offense, but they will be an asset if PSU needs them.

From their perspective, PSU probably figures it can dominate at the line of scrimmage and pull out a win without having to resort to a wide-open attack. Illinois needs to stack up the Nittany Lions' running game and force more passing to keep the game interesting. If they can do that, the game could be low-scoring, giving the Illini a chance to pull it out at the end. But if they let Penn State run rampant, it will be a quick but painful game.

Offensively, Illinois needs to spread out Penn State and force them to cover the whole field. If the Nittany Lions can stack the line in anticipation of running plays, their linebackers can shut down the Illini attack. Juice Williams needs to continue his growth process and remain cool under fire. If he can spread the ball around, the Illini have a chance. But the receivers need to catch and hold onto everything near them, the runners need to fight for every inch of ground without fumbling, and Juice needs to complete a high percentage of his passes without interceptions. Any turnover can be a killer against PSU.

The Illini are not entering this game in the best of spirits. Coach Zook gave them an extra day off on Monday, and the players appreciated the time to recuperate physically and emotionally from difficult losses the two preceding weeks. It is always hard to play inspired on the road, but it is especially difficult to play well when confidence is lacking.

Perhaps the coaches should show the Illini players tapes of all the good plays they have made up to now, to remind them of positive memories. They need to remember the good to balance with the bad (fans would benefit from this also). They need to gain some swagger that a focus on mistakes prevents. If they can put their frustrations behind them and play simply for the fun of it, perhaps they can relax and play their best. After all, they have nothing to lose and self-respect to gain.

It is also possible that Penn State might have trouble rebounding from their difficult loss to Michigan. The game was not as close as the 17-10 score might indicate as Michigan dominated them in front of 110,000 fanatical PSU fans. The Nittany Lions put so much emotion into that game, human nature suggests they might come out a little flat against Illinois.

Of course, Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno knows all the scenarios and will do everything in his power to prevent a letdown. But he cannot control the forces of Nature (sorry, PSU hero-worshippers), so anything is possible. Certainly, we don't look for PSU to be as dominant as they were in their 63-10 romp last year.

Only Illini coaches and players believe they have a chance against Penn State, but this is often a time when a group of athletes can band together for a common cause and give their best effort. The long and arduous road trip, coupled with the rowdy fandom packed into an overgrown and overstuffed stadium, makes opponents feel it is them against the world. Perhaps these difficulties can bring the Illini closer together as a team. If so, they may go down fighting to the end even if they don't win. They defeated Michigan State on their Homecoming, so they know a repeat performance is possible.

A small but vocal minority of fans have already given up on the season, but the coaches and players have not. There is still much to play for, both for this year and in preparation for next year. The Illini continue to make improvements even as they have their predictable ups and downs. The enlightened fan sees this and continues to support their efforts. Illini faithful everywhere are desperate for a win, but most realize how hard it is for freshmen and sophomores to demonstrate consistency while playing against upperclassmen like those who dominate PSU's roster.

Just as the Illini have lost a couple games they might otherwise have won, so to is it possible they can upset another favored opponent. The optimist hopes it comes this week.

Go Illini!!!


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