ILLINOIS: Blitz the Illini

Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal provide the ultimate preview for the Nittany Lions' Big Ten opener (and the rest of the college football weekend). Get the lowdown on the keys to the game and much more right here.

Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's battle against Illinois.

The Blitz was one of the most popular features at the old PSU Playbook, the grass-roots site which was a big part of the entities that united to create FightOnState.com back in 2004. Though the name of the site changed, we kept right on blitzing.

The idea behind The Blitz? Former Playbook scribes (and current FOS staffers) Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal provide a fans' eye breakdown of the upcoming game. They discuss and debate pertinent issues, matchups and injuries, and — of course — provide their predictions. They also take an overview of the entire weekend in college football.

Like a pair of (undersized and very slow) outside linebackers, they pin back their ears and get after it. Sometimes they come through with big hits, other times they miss. But they always enjoy themselves.

As an aside, in keeping up with the times, we are converting The Blitz from a pdf format to an online story.


KICKING OFF

ND: The Lions are coming off of another great performance as they put away Temple. Both sides of the ball performed great and even Sam Ficken booted a FG for the cherry on top. This week, the Lions travel to Illinois to face the Illini, who are really struggling after being drubbed by Louisiana Tech.

MH: Penn State did what it was expected to do and then some. Outside of a miscued interception, the offense protected the ball and the defense tightened up on third downs, allowing just three of 12 attempts to convert for the Owls. Now the Lions enter Big Ten play on the road and you can bet they'll want to make a statement against Illinois.


DIRTY DETAILS

Who: Penn State at Illinois

When: Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, Noon ET, 9:00 a.m. PT

Where: Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.

Series: Penn State leads 6-4

TV: ESPN

Line: Illinois by 1 point


OTHER BIG GAMES

ND: Ohio State had hoped that its non-conference matchup against Cal would be challenging. But, that wasn't the case as Cal has proven to be unimpressive. This week, the Buckeyes get some serious competition when they travel to East Lansing. Braxton Miller has started out the season strong and with a solid supporting cast pitching in. Meanwhile, the Spartans continue to struggle with their passing game but boast a tenacious defense. I think this is going to be an excellent game featuring two very good defenses and two offenses that struggle for points. I like the Buckeyes in this one because of the play of Miller and Jake Stoneburner.

MH: There's a battle of the unbeatens as No. 25 Baylor heads east to tangle with No. 9 West Virginia. The ‘Eers have really not had a tough test yet and eked out a 10-point win over an unimpressive Maryland squad. So we'll see how they handle Baylor, which managed to squeak by giant-killer Louisiana-Monroe. I think West Virginia has the legs to win but expect it to be a bit of a dogfight.


UPSET SPECIAL

ND: I'm going to whimp out. I'm not seeing any games on the docket that are screaming to me as an upset. The matchups this week are pretty unspectacular. But, I do think that Tennessee is going to give Georgia a pretty good battle. I think UGA is still going to pull it out but Tyler Bray is quietly putting together a heck of a year out there in Knoxville. His ability to throw the ball will keep this game close.

MH: Flag on the play. You can't punt on this. Anyhow, how about my pick last week of Oregon State over UCLA? This week I am going with No. 20 Michigan State over No. 14 Ohio State. The game is in East Lansing and Michigan State is looking to redeem itself from the Notre Dame loss.


PSU'S PLAYBOOK

ND: The Lions are starting to create an identity on offense with Matt McGloin, Allen Robinson, a band of TEs and a corp of physical running backs. It would appear that the Lions are going to get Bill Belton back on the field this weekend. But, most importantly, Donovan Smith appears to be ready to get back onto the field, as well. The ability to protect McGloin is paramount. With time, there are very few defenses in this conference that can shut down McGloin with the way that he is playing. His ability to spread the ball and put pressure on a secondary has been key to the Lions' victories. But, the return of Belton and the emergence of Michael Zordich gives the Lions a running attack that is critical down the road. Bottom line: I expect to see the Lions sticking to their offensive identity from the last two weeks with the addition of Belton into the backfield to add an element of explosiveness and another receiver to account for.

Defensively, the pressure is on. After losing to Ohio and Virginia, the coaches have been clearly working on the pass defense. But, much like the Ohio game, this Illinois offense is focused on running the ball and making quick throws to eliminate the pressure on the QB. The Lions front seven continued to impress this past weekend with both pressure on the QB and the ability to completely eliminate a sustained running attack. The Lions will be without Pete Massarro but there have been plenty of guys stepping in at defensive end. This weekend, the defensive line needs to get pressure on the QB and get their hands in the air to knock down passes. Position coach Larry Johnson has definitely made that part of this week's preparation.

I think we also need to start talking about Alex Butterworth. This guy has to start stepping up his game now that the Lions are in conference play. Butterworth is averaging a dismal 35.12 yards per punt and only one punt has exceeded 50 yards. The Lions are 116th in the country in net punting and that will become a liability very, very soon.

MH: McGloin really deserves a lot of credit for his emergence this season. He's smarter and more protective of the ball, although he had a few flashbacks that could have been interceptions last week against Temple. Did you know he has more touchdowns (nine) through four games this season than he had all of 2011 (eight)? A key to the passing games success is that the ball is getting spread around to guys like Robinson, Kyle Carter, Garry Gilliam and Alex Kenney. Each receiver brings a different dimension to the scheme. The run game, which has seen a slew of injuries, really got an old-school spark with Zordich and Zack Zwinak against the Owls. Belton is back in practice and brings a quicker look and a set of hands. Illinois has struggled getting pressure on the pocket, but the Lions cannot bank on that. The offensive line has to be consistent to open holes and protect McGloin enough to get the ball out into the flat.

Defensively, as mentioned above, the Lions were much better on third downs last week and played all-around smarter, more aggressive ball. As you mentioned, Nirav, the line has to get pressure on the pocket and at least contain the ground game. The linebackers are going to be key to direct traffic east-west rather than allow it to go north-south. As you alluded to, the defensive ends will be pivotal to the pressure and have to shed the blocks off the edge to break inside. They don't necessarily need sacks (although they would help), but they have to disrupt the rhythm of the offense.


SCOUTING THE OTHER SIDE

ND: It appears that QB Nathan Scheelhasse will be playing this weekend after nursing a nagging ankle injury. After struggling to run last week, Todd Beckman pulled Scheelhasse and inserted Reilly O'Toole. The problem is that the offense completely shifts for the Illini when that happens. Scheelhasse is a very good runner and a struggling thrower. Meanwhile, O'Toole is a very good passer and not a very scary runner. The fact that both QBs are so different prevents the offense from finding a rhythm in practice or on game day since the focus completely shifts. Josh Ferguson is a do-everything RB. He is small, shifty and has excellent hands. He leads the team in rushing and is third on the team in receptions and receiving yards.

Defensively, the Illini are also suffering from an identity crisis. Last year, they did an exception job up front and blitzed the heck out of the QB, which resulted in plays happening behind the line of scrimmage. This year, the Illini are dead last in the Big Ten because of a defensive scheme that doesn't put pressure on the QB. They have been get gouged through the air. They are giving up over 224 yards passing per outing and are yielding 26 points per game. The guy to watch is Michael Buchanan. From his DE spot, he has 13 tackles, four TFLs, two sacks, one INT, three pass break ups, three pass defenses, four QB hits and one forced fumble. He's a force on the edge.

MH: It is challenging for the Illini offense to downshift when Scheelhasse gets under center. PSU has faced a few mobile quarterbacks this season. I suspect they will have Gerald Hodges work to put his hat on Scheelhasse and make him think twice before he steps away from his line. This approach worked against Navy, so I suspect will see a similar look in this game. Although Scheelhasse is not a big-time passer, the PSU secondary cannot fall asleep on Ryan Lankford. The 6-foot, 175-pound receiver has 16 catches for 243 yards and four touchdowns, so Scheelhasse just has to lob it up to him if he can get into some space.

It is surprising how the Illini defensive front has been unable to pressure opposing pockets. However, PSU's offensive line, although significantly improved, cannot get pushed around on the outside. The good news is that Smith is seeing some practice reps this week and could get back into the rotation. If he is healthy, he could really give a nice boot to the corner. That will also allow the tight ends to slip out of protection and set up as targets, which will take some pressure off, as well.


MATCHUP TO KICK BACK AND ENJOY

ND: I expect to see a pretty good cat-and-mouse game when Penn State has the ball. Bill O'Brien is going to be looking for matchups that cause Illinois to be back on their heels. But, after being beat down in every possible way, I expect that the Illini are going to be significantly more aggressive on defense. It'll be interesting to see how the adjustments are made through the course of the game.

MH: Good pick. I am going on the other side with Penn State's defensive front four against Scheelhasse. Again, he has a nice set of feet and can take off if a spot opens up. The Nittany Lion front has to stay honest and cannot assume he's passing after a few seconds. In fact, Scheelhasse likes to see defenses break off and forget about him as he makes a dash for the marker.


KEYS TO THE GAME

ND: The Lions have been great out of the gate but I think the key to this game is going to be to control their emotions and push to sustain their energy all the way through the game. With everything involved in this matchup, the ability to keep their focus throughout is going to be huge.

MH: I think it comes down to ball protection again. Illinois has four interceptions on the year, so McGloin has to be smart with his passes. However, the Illini are last in the conference in protecting their QB, giving up 13 sacks. That could mean a turnover or two for the Lion defense.


PREDICTIONS

ND: I think the Lions are going to get revenge for the activities from the off-season. The return of Belton will open up more of the playbook and will make the TEs even more potent. I like Carter and Matt Lehman picking up scores and even Ficken shaking off his nerves.

Penn State 20, Illinois 17

MH: I think Penn State is amped for Big Ten play and particularly the Illini. I think we see McGloin spread the ball around and the offense get a boost if Belton and Smith can get in for some action.

Penn State 24, Illinois 20


Until next time,

Fight On State!


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