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.
MH: I have to say, it’s impressive that Penn State football, “with its feel tied together and one hand tied behind its back” (as one Ohio State fan put it) managed to grab a both bid this season. It’s been tough with a very short bench, youth and injuries, but the players deserve a ton of praise for all they have been through and accomplished for Nittany Nation.
ND: With a win over Temple, the Lions have secured a likely bowl bid and that is a huge milestone for this program following the elimination of the NCAA sanctions. Meanwhile, Illinois is coming off of a second half drubbing by Iowa. This is senior day for the Illini and it could be a farewell game for Head Coach, Tim Beckman.
Who: Penn State vs. Illinois
When: Saturday, November 22nd at 12:00 pm ET, 9:00 am PT
Where: Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois
Series: Penn State leads 17-4
Line: Penn State favored by 6.5 points
MH: Let’s take a closer look at where the Nittany Lions stand heading into their road clash against Temple.
DIG IN: Let’s start with a big positive for the Nittany Lions, mainly the PSU defense which continues to elevate their play and shut down ground games. Penn State is still No. 1 in the nation in rush defense, allowing only 2.5 yards per rush and 83.1 rush yards per game. Aside from this, PSU is also No. 1 in the nation in pass defense efficiency, allowing a pass efficiency of only 96.9. It’s impressive how Coach Shoop and his staff have done with the defensive unit.
RUNNING WILD: It’s a big positive that PSU managed to run early and often this past weekend. Granted, it was against Temple, but the Lions rolled up 273 yards and two touchdowns, led by Akeel Lynch (135 yards, 1 TD) and Bill Belton (96 yards, 1 TD).
STRAIGHT LINE: The question is whether the offensive line is finding its groove. Again, Temple doesn’t boast the fiercest defensive line out there, but the big hosses up front controlled the trenches and opened up holes. The unit certainly worked more cohesively. That should bode well against an Illinois defensive front that ranks 121 nationally in run defense.
PASS OFF: The bad news is that QB Christian Hackenberg’s issues continue with timing, mechanics and consistency. As the line has continued to improve he simply has not. The biggest issue is turnovers; on the year he has 14 interceptions (to seven touchdowns) and three lost fumbles. Passing issues aside, he’s simply not fundamentally protecting the ball, which is job one.
SPECIAL DELIVERY: The special teams have had their ups and downs as of late; Sam Ficken nailed a 50-yard field goal just before last Saturday’s half to give PSU the lead, but also had another kick blocked in the game. Also, Grant Haley found a bit of a groove returning three kickoffs for 72 yards with a long of 31 yards.
ND: In this section, I will review this week’s opponent, the Illinois Fighting Illini.
ILLI-NOYED: Tim Beckman is hoping that the Illini can secure two more wins to get to a bowl game. But, considering that Beckman has a grand total of two conference wins in his tenure as the Head Coach at Illinois (2012-2014), the future looks bleak. As a result of such poor performance, Illinois has the lowest attendance percentage in the Big Ten when considering attendance and stadium capacity. Beckman needs this win. The case for his dismissal is that strong.
GO WES: QB Wes Lunt returned from a broken leg to very underwhelming results against Iowa. Prior to his injury, Lunt was one of the best passers in the conference. He is able to make the throws and has enough slipperiness to avoid the pass rush, which is important because the Illini offensive line is a sieve. But, Lunt was rusty and tentative in his return. The Penn State pass rush should cause more of the same this week.
HE’S THE DUDE: Mike Dudek is a freshman that should have the Illini very excited. He is an undersized kid, at 5’11” but he runs fantastic routes and has excellent hands. His elusiveness and speed will create some trouble for the young Penn State secondary but the question is if the Illini can get enough protection for Wes Lunt to get Dudek the ball.
BRICK SOLID BACKER: LB Mason Monheim is a very good linebacker. He has good size and is big enough to create problems for offensive lineman trying to get engage him. Monheim is a stat sheet stuffer – 86 tackles, 6 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery. The one area that he struggles is his lateral movement but he is the one bright spot on a very bad defense.
BIG BOOT: Illinois has struggled in every aspect of special teams except punting. Justin DuVernois has averaged 41.9 yards per kick and has 15 that have exceeded 50 yards. Meanwhile, he has 19 that have landed inside the 20. He is giving the defense a fighting chance.
KEYS TO THE GAME
MH: I have to go with good old fashioned ball protection, Penn State has a lot of edges on paper in this game, but nothing will wipe those out for both sides of things faster than a fumble or interception. Protect the ball first and foremost.
ND: Part of the reason that Penn State has really struggled is the inability to move the ball on first down. The ability to run the ball last week was very encouraging because it really does open up the playbook. So, my key to the game is for the Lions to be productive on first down to give them more options on second and third down.
MH: Despite their “backs against the wall” Illinois and Beckman’s “neck on the block” I expect Penn State’s lines on both sides to control the trenches. If they can protect the ball they should grab number seven.
Penn State 24, Illinois 10
ND: Illinois is not athletic enough on defense and I think the Penn State offensive line got a ton of confidence last week. I think the Lions will come out sharp and will notch another win.
Penn State 27, Illinois 9
Until next time,
Fight On State!
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