Illinois-PSU Game Keys: Need 'Special' Effort

After a 3-1 start that has Illinois fans buzzing more than any time in recent years, the Illini are about to face their toughest opponent of the season. So how do you beat highly regarded and 19th ranked Penn State? The following is this week's edition in a season series of keys to victory.

CANCEL THE SUBSCRIPTIONS! -- To all the newspapers, that is. And internet sites (except this one). Because all of a sudden, everyone, locally, regionally and nationally, is singing the Illini praise. Everyone is saying how this is an up and coming team. A team on the rise. An upset special.

But this team has been far better when folks haven't been saying all this nice stuff. They are better when they have a chip on their shoulder, when everyone seems to be against them. Illinois needs to stay angry, like a team on a mission, one with much to prove. This team isn't good enough to stray far from that mentality.

SOMETHING SPECIAL -- There may not be a game all season in which special teams matters this much. Both teams are exceptional defensively and OK offensively. That usually means a low-scoring game. Which means the little things decide it.

Which should be very good news for Illinois. So far, Jason Reda has yet to miss a field goal, connecting on all four tries, including a 50-yarder and another beyond 40. Also, Anthony Santella has been much better than expected as a redshirt freshman punter. His 24 punts have gone for a 36.9 yard average, but amazingly, nine of those 24, almost 40 percent, have been downed inside the opponents' 20 yard line. Field position will be critical in this game.

Finally, Kyle Hudson has been rock solid as a punt returner. In the swirling wind stadiuims of the Midwest, just catching the punt and making positive yardage is critical. Hudson has done both.

DEPENDABLE DERE -- Dere Hicks must play his best game. It was widely believed before the season that with Vontae Davis and Travon Bellamy at corner and hard-hitting senior safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison, Illinois would have one of the nation's best secondaries.

But Bellamy was lost for the season before it even began, leaving the smaller Hicks as the corner opposite Davis. So far, he has played well against the opponent's No. 2 receiver. But with Penn State itching to get the ball to super wideouts Derrick Williams and Deon Butler, Davis can only cover one. Hicks has to be solid against the other for Illinois to have a chance.

HIT THE OPEN GUY -- Juice Williams doesn't have to be spectacular, although two or three times per game he will do something eye-popping. What he does have to do, though, is be efficient. Manage the game -- no silly penalties that lead to second and 15, no fumbled snaps, no poor judgments on passes, etc.

Opportunties to score will be few. But there will be some. So when a player comes open, Juice has to hit them. No questions asked.

WIN THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE -- Sort of goes without saying, but really the case in this one. After playing a litany of spread teams, Illinois now gets its crack at some straight I-formation, power teams. That should be easier for the Illini to match up with, but they have to win the battle. Take away the run and make Anthony Morelli pass. Morelli has improved and is pretty good now when passing when he wants to. Key is to make him pass when he doesn't want to but has to.

On offense, Illinois has to block well to run well. And if they don't run well, they can't win. That simple.

LIVE IN THE MOMENT -- OK, a bit of a cliche, but stay with me here. These players are going through a wealth of emotions they haven't felt before. A third of the way through the season, everyone is talking bowl game. That hasn't happened in awhile. There also will be great pre-game hype. And much talk about the blasting Penn State gave Illinois the last time they came to Champaign.

The key for the Illini players is to forget about all of that. Don't think about two years ago, don't think about a bowl, don't think about Wisconsin next week. Live for now. That is this team's best chance.

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