Both struggled through the non conference slates with injuries and just general inconstantanty. This should be a close game and could be a huge factor in determining conference positioning later in the season even though Penn State is banned from bowl play due to the Jerry Sandusky situation.
OFFENSE: The Illini thought it would be a heck of a lot better by this point in their season but they also didn’t expect starter Nathan Scheelhasse to go down not once but twice so far this year. When he’s been in we’ve seen a lot of promise but he just hasn’t delivered.
Sophomore running back Donnovan Young has been somewhat of a bright spot although the Illini have been behind so quickly they have had to dump the run often. Head coach Tim Beckham would be wise to stay with Scheelhasse assuming he’s healthy because the Illini offensive line is getting their quarterback killed. They need someone who can move. Sophomore Reilly O’Toole was sacked 5 times last week by a bad Louisiana Tech Bulldogs defense.
Penn State is usually led by their defense and this year is no exception but the offense has started to come around a bit. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin has already surpassed 1,000 yards passing this season and has found a new “go-to guy” in sophomore receiver Allen Robinson.
The Lions should also get a big boost with the expected return of starting running back Bill Belton from injury. The best bet to attack the Illini D is probably to spread them out and attack their lack of depth in the secondary but I expect head coach Bill O’Brien tries to establish the run and not force his quarterback to do much early.
DEFENSE: There’s no other way to say it, the Illini have some major issues on this side of the ball. While senior Michael Buchanan, junior Akeem Spence and junior Jonathan Brown are all outstanding individually this unit gives up way too many big plays and doesn’t show a lot of energy in general.
Penn State’s defense is still statistically among the nation’s best but the competition hasn’t exactly been great. Their toughest test was against the Ohio Bobcats in the opener where they did a fine job for 3 quarters until junior quarterback Tyler Tettleton broke through.
I expect linebacker Gerald Hodges to cause big problems for the speed offense we have seen so far from the Illini with his freakish athleticism. He plays nearly every down and Penn State’s d-line has gotten some timely sacks. The secondary is young and hasn’t really been tested so if they don’t get pressure up front that could expose that unit.
WHAT ELSE IS UP?: The other story line that won’t leave this game is the saga that started last offseason when Illinois sent coaches to State College to try and poach some Penn State players discontent with the punishment that was coming from the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. Both teams are trying to downplay it but it certainly isn’t over. I doubt their will be much pregame chatter between both coaching staffs.
PREDICTION: I suppose I’m going against the grain a bit but the Illini really need this one for bowl positioning even early in the season since they’re likely looking at a bottom tier bowl. Illinois 20-17.