BLITZ THE ILLINI: Gameday Guide

Now in their 15th season of previewing Penn State football clashes, Nirav Dalal and Mark Harrington bring back the FOS Blitz — Penn State's premier gameday guide for Nittany Lion fans. Get it exclusively right here for Penn State football's Illinois clash.

EDITOR's NOTE: The FOS Blitz has been the perfect gameday companion for Penn State football fans for the past 15 seasons. This unique pdf guide provides analysis, insight, stats, depth charts, rosters and so much more, whether your watching the game in Seattle or State College. Get ready for Illinois in style.

Download the full FOS Blitz gameday guide at the link below, or simply read Nirav and Mark's game preview below.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL FOS BLITZ: PSU vs. Illinois

ND: As was the case last year, Penn State has to find a way to bounce back after a loss at the hands of the Hawkeyes. And, like last year, they will be facing the Illini. Last year, the Lions slept through the first half before turning it on in the third quarter to put the Illini away. The Illini are better this year and the Lions are probably worse so the same sort of lackadaisical approach will probably put the Lions in a bad spot.

MH: There seems to be frustration all over with the Iowa performance. Even though few thought PSU would leave Iowa with a win, the lack of overall production has many scratching their heads. Illinois is actually No. 1 nationally in redzone scoring heading into this game (12 for 12). While they are No. 29 in rushing yards, they are also No. 113 in passing yards.

Dirty Details:

Who: Illinois at Penn State
When: October 9th at 12 pm ET and 9 am PT
Where: Beaver Stadium in State College, PA
Series: Penn State leads 14-3
TV: ESPN2
Line: Penn State favored by 7.5

Other Big Games This Weekend:

ND: Mark, after so many great matchups last weekend, this weekend's slate is pretty weak. But, I'm going to be watching the Arkansas and Texas A&M matchup. The Aggies went through their normal cupcake schedule unscathed but lost a tough one to OK State and that knocked them out of the rankings. But, I think they are still a solid team that could give Ryan Mallet some trouble. The game is being played in Arlington so it should have a fun atmosphere. We'll see if Coach Sherman can get an upset.

MH: It's pretty weak. No. 1 Alabama travels to No. 19 South Carolina. I expect Alabama to roll here, but Carolina has shown flashes of impressiveness, but it likely won't be enough. No. 17 Michigan State should give No. 18 Michigan their first test of the season. Can the Wolverines knock off the Spartans with a tattered defense? We'll see. Also, keep an eye on No. 23 Florida State as the head to No. 13 Miami.

Upset Special:

ND: Like most of the college football fans in the country, I've been waiting for Denard Robinson to face a defense with a pulse to see how he can perform. Well, Greg Jones, the All-American LB for the Spartans definitely has a pulse. We'll see if Robinson is able to bust big runs against a pretty good defense. More importantly, we'll see how the Wolverines perform on defense against a balanced attack with a very smart QB and an explosive running back. I like the Spartans in this game to pull the upset and bring Robinson back to Earth.

MH: I am not sure MSU beating Michigan would be an upset, other than for the hype machine that is ESPN. No. 14 Florida hosts No. 12 LSU. Les Miles nearly managed to blow another game in the last minute, however Tennessee's inability to count (with 13 men on the field) gave LSU a second chance to win. Florida is licking their wounds from the Bama smackdown and will be looking to get back on track in this one.

Offense:

ND: Last year, the Lions noticed that the Illini were particular soft against the run so the Illini got a heavy, heavy dose of Green and Royster. This year, the Illini are far better against the run but they are very porous against the pass. But, we have seen that the Lions will try to attack teams with a balanced attack and that's exactly what I expect to see on Saturday.

The coaches need to review the film from the Iowa game and realize that pulling lineman this year is not a good option because of the lack of speed on that line. Klopacz is getting creamed and the defenders are blowing up the hole before the lineman can get there. A better approach is going to be more zone reads and speed options. I liked the shovel pass that was used against the Illini. It's basically like a running play and it will help Royster get a gap when the defense flows to the QB. Royster, Green and even Redd are all excellent backs but they need the big boys up front to start pushing people around and getting to the second level. If that doesn't happen, then a three yard gain is all that can be expected. The Illini have an awful good LB, Martez Wilson, who has a nose for the ball and makes a ton of plays in the backfield. He has five TFLs, two sacks and one forced fumble this year. If the O-line can't get a hat on him, he will be in the backfield blowing up runs before they get to the line of scrimmage.

I continue to believe that the Lions are not taking full advantage of the size and athleticism that they have at the wide out position. I'd like to see the coaches get the ball into Moye and Brown's hands as fast as possible and let them run with it. Of course, that assumes that the WRs can actually catch the ball. The corners for the Illini are 5'11" and 6'0". With the focus on the running game, the Lions should be able to get some favorable matchups that can be exploited. These shorter passes will also give Bolden some confidence.

Mark, I'm expecting the Lions to probably struggle a bit on offense and for the normal trend of moving the ball until they get to the redzone to continue. The Lions just have to keep pushing forward and not get frustrated with a lack of production.

MH: One of the biggest issues against Iowa was a myriad of receiver drops; nearly every veteran wideout had at least one key drop in the game. The receivers have to step up and "pull in any ball that touches our hands," as Justin Brown put it. Speaking of Brown he had a nice run of receptions on a late drive. The coaches need to figure out how to get him involved in the offense more consistently. His size, speed and hands make him a solid target that is difficult to cover.

Nirav, I am with you in that the coaches need to help our Rob Bolden with Derek Moye and Brown. With Gary Gilliam lost to an ACL injury, the Lions are paper thin at tight end and now are looking to true freshman Kevin Haplea to step in. Haplea has the size, but he's still learning the game and adjusting to the speed of the game. I expect the coaches will have him in for max-protect help. This makes leveraging Brown and Moye even more important. Plus they should be leveraging Devon Smith's speed.

Penn State continues to focus on the redzone play, but they continue to struggle to put points on the board. Third and longs are daunting so the coaches have to put the offense in high-percentage opportunities. Ron Zook is fighting for his life in this game so I expect him to take a lot of risks and look to send Wilson to disrupt the pocket. In terms of the running game, I would like to see Silas Redd get more than two carries. He has shown that he can extend runs in open space and will fight for yards. Royster will get the start and the bulk of the carries, but he will need to get an added bounce in his step to try to break a tackle here and there, which he has struggled with. Also, he seems to have a semi-consistent issue tripping over the yard lines. He's got to get his feet under himself to pick up positive yardage and not contribute to those third and longs.

Defense:

ND: The Illini come to town with an offense that loves to run the ball and occasionally throws the ball. The Illini feature Doak Walker candidate, Mikel Lashoure. He's ranked 13th in the country with a 119.5 yards per game average. More impressive is the fact that he's averaging 6.2 yards per carry. However, what is really helping Lashoure move the ball is the fact that his QB is such a running threat that defenses are having to pick their poison. Redshirt Freshman Nathan Scheelhase has stepped right in where Juice Williams left off. He's completing 54% of his passes and he's running 54 yards per game. However, both struggled running the ball against Ohio State last week. Outside of one long run by Lashoure, the Illini were averaging less than three yards per carry. The Lions have to watch that film and learn that they should stack the box and force Scheelhase to throw the ball. Much like the approach for Bolden, the more third and longs that Scheelhase is put in, the more mistakes he's likely to make.

The Illini have two receivers that have caught the lions' share of balls this year. Of the 45 total passes caught by the Illini, 29 have been caught by Fayson and Jenkins. The two are quite different though. Fayson is more of a possession, cross route receiver where Jenkins is the guy that stretches the field. Last week, Morris seemed to get picked on quite a bit by Stanzi while Lynn seemed to go untested. Both did fairly well and the aggressiveness of Sukay has been very refreshing. Look for the Lions to take risks on some of Scheelhase's balls considering that he isn't very accurate and he's young will likely make some read errors.

The reason that I think the Illini will move the ball on the Lions is that the front seven have shown real strength in clogging the box and preventing runners from gaining yards between the tackles. However, the Lions have seemed to struggle making 1-on-1 tackles in space and that's exactly what the Illini are going to create with their running attack. Either Lashoure or Scheelhase will want to get an edge to see if Stupar, Gbadyu, Mauti or Fortt can stop them out in the open. My feeling is that if they get past the initial push, they will gain some yards on this defense that still takes bad angles.

MH: This is certainly a team that likes to run early and often, so the front four will have to come out swinging. There's no luxury to come out flat again, and given that this is a noon kickoff, that is what concerns me. Lashoure is aggressive, but the Lions have the ability to contain him if the linebackers come to play from the outset. I actually think Zook will try to get more of a pass going in this one to open things up for the ground game, but he'll look to Fayson to help Scheelhase out with the intermediate routes.

The bigger concern for me is the lack of pressure Penn State is getting on the pocket. Granted Zook is not going to put the game on Scheelhasse's shoulders, but I think he will look to use him as a supplement to the run game to help leverage some running room given that PSU has not been able to force too many QB mistakes so far this season.

Nirav, I disagree in terms of the approach; I don't expect Penn State to take a lot of risks on defense. I don't think we will see much blitzing or deviation from the scheme. Penn State was getting into some 4-4 at times against Iowa and we could see some of that here given Illinois' affinity for the run. A big key is if the coaches line up with Khairi Fortt and linebacker and put some speed at defensive end with Pete Masso. The Lions have to work to disrupt the pocket and plug up the lanes. I do think Bradley will focus on the run and play containment with the secondary. I know Stanzi picked on Morris who gave up two long passes, but I am not so worried about him and think he'll learn from the experience.

Special Teams:

ND: This game very easily could come down to a special teams play here or there. The Lions have shown some ability on special teams but the inconsistency of Fera does need to improve. On the other side, Santella is the second best punter in the country with an astounding average of 48.3 yards per punt. Further, over 43% of his punts are exceeding 50 yards! However, the Illini are very mediocre on punt returns and kick returns. As long as the Lions stay in their lanes, they should be able to prevent any sort of a return from the men in white and orange.

MH: As you said, Penn State has to take advantage of field position opportunities. They have to unleash the return game and allow the offense to have some short fields to work with. Fera's kickoffs have been great, but as you said his inconsistent punting is a major concern and needs to be addressed. I think on returns Justin Brown matches up nicely in this one and should find some success.

Matchup to Kick Back and Enjoy:

ND: Mikel Lashoure is an excellent tailback and when you add in the running ability of Nathan Scheelhaase, the Illini have a strong running attack. The Lions front seven will have their hands full with these two and I'll be interested to see if they can continue the recent trend of performing well against the run.

MH: Nice pick, I am going with Rob Bolden against the Illinois blitz. Zook will toss the kitchen sink at Bolden, so he will have to have a sharp eye out and watch his six. I would like to see the staff get some designed runs into the mix as well to keep the Illinois defense guessing on what Bolden will do.

Keys to the Game:

ND: The Lions have to wake up early and come out looking to dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The Lions have the talent and the size to put this game away early. But, if they try to sleep walk their way through it, the Lions will end up with another entry in the loss column.

MH: You said it, the Lions needs to go triple-A in this one: be awake, alert and aggressive. They can't come out and lumber around. They need to open up like the second half of Temple. Fly to the ball, put on big hits and show the Illini they are going to pay for picking up yardage.

Predictions:

ND: This game is going to be far closer than the folks in Vegas are predicting. In fact, if this game were on the road, I think the Lions could possibly go down. But, in the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium, the Lions will make a play on defense in the fourth quarter to help pull the game out.

Penn State 23, Illinois 20

MH: I think this will be a game, particularly since I expect PSU to come out flat and work their way into a rhythm. If they come out aggressive then they can put Illinois on the ropes, but the Illini are in a "must win" game and are fighting for Zook's life.

Penn State 26, Illinois 17

Until next time,

Fight On State!

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