Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's matchup against Illinois.
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.
MH: Certainly not dominant or pretty necessarily, but Penn State managed a Big Ten road win vs. Maryland, and, more importantly, got bowl eligible. PSU is one of six Big Ten teams that are currently bowl eligible, which is best among the Power 5 conferences. Among the positive takeaways from this game — the Nittany Lions battled back for the win, which I am not so sure would have happened in a game like this in recent history. While the team is the youngest in the conference, there’s a lot of talent emerging despite some persistent challenges the squad is facing.
ND: The Lions got back on track with a nice win over Maryland. Maryland had an extra week to prepare for Penn State and the Lions saw wrinkles on both sides of the ball that created some issue. But James Franklin was very happy with the way that the team pulled together and won. This is a game that Penn State would have likely lost last year, but they found a way to win this year. That shows some progress. This week, the Lions will square off against Illinois, which continues to struggle even after Tim Beckman was fired as head coach. The one thing that Penn State has learned? No game on the schedule will be easy this year with the issues that are impacting this team.
Who: Illinois vs. Penn State
When: Saturday, Noon ET
Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
Series: Penn State leads 17-5
Line: Penn State -5 as of Thursday afternoon
MH: Let’s take a closer look at where the Nittany Lions stand heading into their home game with Illinois.
STORM FRONT: While Penn State’s defensive front made plays when the chips were down, the unit struggled against Maryland’s mobile QB Perry Hills. The good news is that they’re facing a much less mobile threat in Illinois’ Wes Lunt. The defensive line will have to get in some pressure and disruption to force things with the pocket and create opportunities. Watch for Carl Nassib to get some extra attention in an attempt to slow down the nation’s best sack-master. That should open up some opportunities for the rest of the crew, particularly Garrett Sickles.
GROUNDED OUT: Maryland’s defensive mission was to plug up lanes for Saquon Barkley, making Christian Hackenberg go to the air. That largely worked, forcing PSU into an air attack focus. Penn State will likely be facing a similar approach by the Illini, who have a defensive line that will likely give the Lions’ offensive line a lot to handle. The staff can’t abandon the run game, though, and should look to get Barkley out into space to create some room since the inside lanes will most likely be crowded.
AIR TIME: While Hackenberg showed inconsistency with the short and intermediate passing game last week, his ability to deliver the ball (despite being hit) to his receivers deep was impressive and shouldn’t be discounted. Wideouts Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton had monster games, and need to be ready to do so again against an Illini secondary that struggles with size and speed.
GETTING SPECIAL: The biggest concern right now with the Lions is no doubt the downward spiral of the special teams’ play. The punting game needs to find improvement to give Penn State a fighting chance in the battle for field position. Beyond this, the kicking game struggled with a missed field goal and a key kickoff booted out of bounds. This unit has to tighten things up as PSU heads into the home stretch of the season.
ON THE CLOCK: The second biggest concern headed into the Illinois game may be the clock management of squad. The delay of game and the quick burning of all three timeouts early in the second half vs. Maryland have to be addressed. I expect a dogfight in this one where those timeouts may be critical as the game winds down.
ND: In this section we preview Illinois.
WES IS MORE: Lunt returns for his junior year with the Illini and he is a very steady QB. His arm strength won’t blow anyone away, but he is an efficient and smart passer. Fortunately for Penn State, he is not very mobile and the Illini will not ask him to run the ball to win the game. He will stay in the pocket. His offensive line is good but definitely not great. For Lunt, getting time to throw the ball will be a bit of an issue as I see Penn State’s defense front giving Illinois some real troubles.
GIVE HIM THE BALL: RB Josh Ferguson came into this season as a real staple for this offense. But he has been sidelined with a shoulder injury and he is unlikely to play again this weekend. In his place, Ke’Shawn Vaughn did pretty well against Wisconsin. He tallied 55 yards on 13 carries and broke a nice run for a TD. He is a true freshman who has good size, good speed and good hands. However, with the Lions not having to worry about Lunt running the ball, I doubt that Vaughn will have much success.
SAY GERONIMO: WR Geronimo Allison is leading the Big Ten in receptions and is clearly Lunt’s primary target. He is a tall, lanky WR. He does not have explosive speed but he does have very good hands. The other WR of note is Malik Turner. He has great size at 6-foot-3, and he is very physical with his hands. That can pose problems for smaller corners. He is just a sophomore but eventually he will become a great complement to Mike Dudek, who will likely miss this entire season with an ACL injury.
D-MONS: The Illinois defensive line is not getting the credit that Ohio State’s or Penn State’s gets, but it is an excellent unit and is the real reason why Illinois is one of the better defenses in the conference. The group is led by Rob Bain and Chunky Clements. These guys are big — 290 and 300 pounds, respectively — and are also the strongest players on the team. They will create some real problems for the Penn State offensive line, especially since these they use a ton of stunts to get pressure on the quarterback.
SECOND THOUGHTS: Though the defensive line is very good, it is also masking the issues in the Illini secondary. This is a unit that isn’t very good. It lacks size and speed. If Hackenberg can get some time in the pocket, he should be able to attack this secondary. The Illini play a lot of zone, so there should be some holes to exploit. I think Illinois will stick to a base defense and will blitz the linebackers to get continual pressure at the line of scrimmage while using their safeties to protect against the big play.
KEYS TO THE GAME
MH: If the PSU defense can create some quick outs and generate some opportunities, it should go a long way in helping Penn State’s offense get things going. The key is the offense shedding the predictability and taking advantage of what the defense creates for it.
ND: Every game is won in the trenches, and this one will be no exception. The Illinois defensive line is very good, so I think Penn State’s ability to open running lanes and protect Hackenberg will be the key to this game. If Hackenberg gets time, he should be able to pick apart this secondary and we all know the damage Barkley can do when he gets to the second level.
MH: If Penn State can manage a win, it’ll be another winning season, the fourth in a row since the sanctions. Penn State’s offense needs to take what the talented Illinois defense gives it in order to get some sustained drives and score some points.
Penn State 24, Illinois 17
ND: This game is going to be a punt-fest with both defenses controlling the line of scrimmage. Points will be at a premium. Penn State has a better running attack and a couple of key Barkley runs will be the difference.
Penn State 20, Illinois 16
Until next time,
Fight On State!