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ND: As I sit here and watch last Saturday's game, I see a team that got crushed by injuries, turnovers and a lack of execution at the QB position. As a result, the Illini got beat soundly. Unfortunately, that same storyline played out on ABC when Penn State faced off against Iowa. These two teams face off this Saturday to see which team can live up to expectations and contend for the top spot in the Big Ten.
MH: Yeah, both teams are coming off of disappointing outings and hoping to bounce back this Saturday. It should be a telling game to see if either team is able to put the past behind them and focus on regrouping in order to get back into the Big Ten race.
Who: Illinois at No. 13 Penn State
When: October 3 at 3:30pm ET and 12:30pm PT
Where: Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.
Series: Penn State leads 13-3
Line: Penn State favored by 6 points
Other Big Games This Weekend:
ND: Mark, this is the time of the season when teams that have played a bunch of cupcakes get tested. I'm very interested to see how Texas A&M plays this weekend. In the second season as head coach, Mike Sherman has the Aggies' offense rolling. They are No. 1 in the country in total offense and No. 4 in scoring offense. But, they've played teams that would rival Texas state champion high schools. This week, however, the Razorbacks come calling. The game will be played in the new Cowboy stadium and there should be a ton of points in this game since Arkansas is 4th in the country in passing offense and 119th (second to last) in passing defense. I like the Aggies in this one and making people wonder if there is another team in the Big 12 South that deserves some recognition.
MH: There are a few intriguing games this week. First, No. 7 USC heads north to face off with No. 24 Cal. Both teams have suffered disappointing early losses and the winner of this game is likely to have a fast track to the Pac-10 title. In the SEC No. 4 LSU heads east to No. 18 Georgia, which should be an interesting clash.
ND: Mark, these season has shown me that there are a couple of good teams but the rest have some serious issues that will be exploited at some point. Well, I think this weekend the USC team will be exploited and shown to be a very average team, which is something we have not said about USC in years. I really like Cal coming off of the crushing loss to Oregon bouncing back and knocking off USC in this game. I'm not convinced that USC has a QB that can move the ball and the injury to Stephon Johnson eliminates their short-yardage back. I like Cal taking charge in the Pac-10 after this game.
MH: I like that pick Nirav. I think there is a potential upset brewing in the Big Ten as No. 22 Michigan heads north to face a wounded Michigan State. Sure MSU has a horrid run attack, but Cousins has passed for seven touchdowns and the Spartans are looking to shake off the "little brother" tag Michigan has had on them for years. It's a deep rivalry that could be interesting as it unfolds.
ND: The offense last week was a story of one step forward and one step back. Every time the Lions appeared to be gaining some momentum and consistency, a penalty or turnover would dash all hopes. Now, the Lions have regroup and get ready for the Illini. The Lions need to get back to a balanced attack but it is going to be key for Clark to be able to deliver the football on-target so that it can cause the safeties and the LBs to play off of the line of scrimmage. The line is not going to be able to deal with 5 or 6 rushers so PSU has to strike when the Illini stuff the box. What has been lacking this year is the quick pass out to the flat to one of the WRs. With burners like Powell and Smith, it would seem that this would be a good supplement to the running game and would get the ball to guys that can make plays in space. This also sets up the out and up, which was a staple of the Lion passing attack last year. Look for Hall and Paterno to find ways to get Hardeman, the Illini safety into one-on-one coverage. This kid had a ton of promise last year when he came to Illinois as a community college transfer. But, he has not shown the type of talent that all had expected. This could be a real opportunity for the TE running down the seam or when the Lions go with a 4-WR set.
The running game is a complete mystery. Royster has success running the ball on the perimeter so they keep running between the tackles. Clark looked good running so that's abandoned despite having a lead. I still believe that the offensive line could be far more successful if the Lions spread the field and then ran the ball. This would force the safeties and the LBs to play wide and, therefore, give the line an easier time to open holes. Illinois has a couple of guys on the front seven that are stout. Ian Pilcher coming off of the defensive end and Ian Thomas, who is playing the MLB position.
The Lions have struggled on offense all year long from a lack of consistency and a lack of identity. I think that struggle will continue this week. Though they will score some points, the team will still stall out just when they think everything is starting to click.
MH: You're absolutely right, Nirav. Penn State would get a Wallace interception or a big Powell return and then hand it right back to Iowa with a turnover or penalty. I tell you, there are few teams out there that can overcome three interceptions, a fumble, a safety and a blocked punt to pull out a victory. The question now is can this team regroup and get back on track mentally? My concern is that there are early indications that Daryll Clark is stewing on this loss. He needs to get it behind him and realize there is a lot more ball to be played.
Penn State needs to get a balanced attack going in terms of ground vs. air, but also long vs. short ball. Clark has to realize his offensive line is inconsistent and that he does not have the time luxury he had with last year's line. Against Iowa he simply held onto the ball too long too often. Illinois will look to open up Pilcher to get pressure on the pocket, so Clark will have to be aware of his surroundings.
I'd like to see the coaches get the intermediate passing game going, since I suspect Illinois will pull their linebackers up on the line like Iowa did, so Clark should have targets out in the flat to dump the ball to. However, PSU should also go deep more in this one. They went long only a few times against the Hawkeyes, but found success doing it.
As you mentioned Nirav, the offensive staff should leverage Andrew Quarless with some curls or drag routes and should also pull out some 4-wide sets to spread out the Illinois coverage and get them out into space. This should create opportunities to assemble drives.
ND: Defensively, I thought the Lions did OK considering that Lee and Stupar were not in the lineup. They should have been able to get more pressure on Stanzi but they were still able to make some plays behind the line of scrimmage. The Lions will have their hands full this week with probably a more superior offensive line. The Illini have Outland candidate Jon Asamoah, fifth year center Eric Block (what a great name for a center!) and Freshman All-American tackle Jeff Allen. These linemen will be blocking the way for an Illini rushing attack that really struggled last week but has been the main staple of this offense. The rushing attack comes from a whole host of players. Primarily, the Lions have to account for Juice Williams running the ball. He runs the read option incredibly well. What he's lacking is that game breaking bruiser that he had with Mendenhall. Regardless, the defense will have to tackle, which was not their strong suit this past weekend. There were many missed tackles and quite a few bad angles that were taken. The Lions have to play assignment football and make sure that they take down the Illini runner when given the opportunity. Mark, if you remember, this was also the problem in the 2007 game. The Lions were trying to arm tackle and that failed miserably.
When the Illini pass, they have a number of solid options. We all know about Arrellious Benn. He's a fantastic, physical receiver that always seems to play great against PSU. However, keep an eye on Jeff Cumberland, who is 6'5" and is very athletic having won their summer slam dunk contest. He's a guy that they like to use on fade routes and he is also a great blocker on quick passes out to the flat. But, the guy that could pose a real problem for PSU is TE Hoomanawanui. This guy is huge at 6'5" and 270lbs. He's like an undersized lineman that can run routes and catch balls. In fact, he is 2nd on the team with 6 catches. But, this has been the problem with the Illini. They have tremendous talent at the WR position but they have not been able to get the passing game in synch. Juice is completing 58.5% of his passes with 3 INTs but doesn't have a TD this season. If Juice can't get it going in this game, look for Coach Zook to give Juice the hook and put Eddie McGee in there to give the offense a spark. The Lions need to be aggressive going after the QB and forcing some errant throws.
The Illini offense is still trying to get all of that talent heading in the right direction but Juice is not pushing things in the right direction like he did as a sophomore. The PSU defense is going to struggle against the option at times but the speed of the team will prevent the Illini from getting into the endzone very often despite getting close.
MH: The defense overall did OK, but I was shocked that they not only failed to get pressure on Stanzi with any consistency, but couldn't even seen to disrupt the pocket. Iowa was often not keeping their tight ends in and Jared Odrick was regularly manning a double team, so Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore should have been able to get through their assignments with greater regularity.
As you mentioned the key is containment of Williams. He's very mobile and when he is on, he's solid, but when he is off, get your hands up because you may end up with the ball. The Illini have a sizable receiving corp, so the key will be for the front four to get a rush on Williams in order to rush his decision and delivery. The PSU linebackers will have to play fast in order to help contain Williams on runs, given he is quick and elusive. It's good for PSU that Navorro Bowman is back, although Sean Lee remains questionable for this one. Personally, I expect the staff to keep him sidelined this week. Hopefully Nate Stupar is ready to carry more of the load.
With Williams' speed, I'd actually like the staff to use Bani Gbadyu in the middle more to help with that containment aspect. I expect Illinois to find success with their passing and the option, so PSU will have to play disciplined assignment ball, which can be a challenge given that they have yet to see a solid option team this year.
ND: Well, the only way to sum up the special teams' performance against Iowa is disastrous. Blocked punts, a FG that came up short from under 50 yards and kickoffs that rarely penetrated the 5-yard line. The kickoff coverage still requires work but the kickoffs are line drives and don't travel very far. I think it's time to burn Anthony Fera's redshirt and let him kickoff. At this point, it's worth the risk and if the Lions lose a year of Fera's eligibility, so be it. Since the offense is not scoring big points, field position is going to continue to be critical and that means that someone has to get the ball into the endzone on kickoffs.
MH: I am on the Fera bandwagon as well. Colin Wagner simply does not have the power to get up under the ball to get the hang-time to help the coverage get downfield. This is a huge factor in the battle for field position. Fera is hitting balls with hang-time upwards of 4.0 seconds, which would be huge for the coverage. I am not holding my breadth though.
Matchup to Kick Back and Enjoy:
ND: Maybe third time is the charm against Arrellious Benn. He torched the Lions two years ago and was huge last year. I like the matchup of the PSU secondary against Benn. Last year, the defense was using a safety and a corner to take Benn out of the game and it appeared to work. We'll see if that's what Bradley calls for again this year.
MH: I am going with the front seven for Penn State against Juice Williams. The Lions have to squeeze Juice and force him to run east-west instead of north-south. Williams likes to rely on his legs so keeping him corralled in will be a tall order and will require the front seven to leverage their speed and minimize the over-pursuits.
Keys to the Game:
ND: The team that is able run the ball in this game should be able to get the W. Illinois really likes to run the ball. They are averaging 192 yards per game despite being completely shutdown (34 attempts for 82 yards) against Ohio State. Meanwhile, Illinois got torched for 236 yards against Ohio State on the ground. The Lions won't be able to rack up that type of yards but if they can move the ball on first down that will take some of the pressure off of Clark, which is exactly what he needs.
MH: I am going with ball protection. Penn State has been horrible protecting the ball. The Lions have to shake off the Iowa loss and realize there is a lot to play for still. They need to come out swinging and have the confidence that they can beat Illinois and get the PSU Express back on track. If they come out moping and flat Illinois will pounce. Protect that ball.
ND: Neither team has looked very sharp this season and I expect a sloppy game in this one. Illinois is calling for an "Orange" out but I think they'll get squeezed by a great defense.
Penn State 27, Illinois 16
MH: I expect both teams to stall on drives, but I think the Penn State defense is the difference in this one. The need to get on the pressure early and contain Williams to snuff out drives.
Penn State 20, Illinois 10
Until next time,
Fight On State!