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September 28, 2012Can the Nittany Lions start putting together a winning streak by opening Big Ten play with a victory in Champaign?
Find out who are we picking to win this weekend, and by how much, right here:
Blue White Illustrated Web Editor
2012 Record - 2-2
Before we get started here, I just want everyone to take note of the fact that I picked the winner and score correctly last weekend, so while Snyder's overall record may be a game better than mine through four games, I pulled off the more impressive feat.
Moving on to more pressing topics, though, this is a game that I thought was going to be very important for Penn State well before the season began. Not that Illinois is a good team - it's not - but simply because of the fiasco with Tim Beckman and the poaching players ordeal that took place following the NCAA sanctions in July, I saw this as having the potential to be a letdown game.
There is an undeniable extra motivation for this game, both from the players and the Penn State coaching staff, regardless of whatever they're saying publicly about not holding a grudge and having more important things to worry about. In a sense, they're right, they are worrying about the details of how to beat the living daylights out of this Illinois team, thanks to what they perceived to be unethical actions taken by Beckman and his staff.
I'm not going to get into that debate, seeing as the NCAA rules permitted those actions, but I can say confidently that the Nittany Lions were not happy about it, and frankly, still aren't.
If there's going to be an avenue for Penn State to win comfortably on Saturday, it's going to start with the defense. Flatly, Jordan HIll, Deion Barnes, Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges should all have great afternoons against this Illinois offensive line and a still fragile quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The Illini are giving up 3.25 sacks per game, which is among the worst in Division I football. If Penn State can't capitalize with some forced turnovers and big sacks off constant pressure Saturday, it's missing a huge opportunity.
Conversely, though Illinois' defense has been a major letdown this season in terms of its front seven putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Penn State's offensive line still has its work cut out for it. Keep quarterback Matt McGloin on his feet and injury-free, and he's going to have opportunities to pick apart the Illini's No. 63-ranked pass defense (No. 100 pass efficiency defense), giving up 224 yards per game through the air.
I don't see this Penn State offense hanging 52 or 45 points up against any team this season the way Arizona State and Louisiana Tech did to the Illini already, but I still think that an improving offense and dominating defensive effort should be enough to earn the Nittany Lions a 1-0 start to the Big Ten schedule and, maybe more important, a move above .500 for my pick 'em this season.
Enjoy the game, guys. I'll have live updates from the press box before the game.
Penn State - 24
Illinois - 13
Blue White Illustrated Recruiting Analyst
2012 Record - 3-1
Following last weekend's 52-24 home loss to Louisiana Tech, as well as a 45-14 loss to Arizona State a few weeks back, Saturday's game against Penn State is big one for the Illini, which is why I believe this will be another game that comes down to the wire.
I think Penn State is without a doubt the better team, talent-wise and coaching, but I also believe this could be the week that Sam Ficken has to prove he's over the funk he had against Virginia. This could be another game that's impacted greatly by special teams.
This will be a lower scoring game than most expect, but both Penn State and Illinois will be able to pass the ball. The question I have, once again, is how well can Penn State rush the ball? If Penn State can control the clock and the run game, then PSU will be OK, but if they become one-dimensional against a hungry Illinois squad, I think this could also be the game that Matt McGloin takes a step back from an otherwise excellent start to the season.
The defensive front seven will be fine, it's the secondary that still has to prove themselves. Scheelhaase has been shaky at points this year, so another thing to watch is how he bounces back after being benched last weekend.
The key to this game - like many others - will be who wins the turnover battle. I still have some doubts about the way Belton carries the ball, but if PSU can force a turnover or two and limit themselves to one or none, the Nittany Lions will leave Champaign 3-2.
Penn State - 21
Illinois - 17
Blue White Illustrated Assistant Editor
2012 Record - 2-2
On paper, Illinois' weaknesses play directly into Penn State's strengths.
In it's two losses, which came by a combined score of 97-38, Illinois struggled against multiple wide receiver sets and quick passing; Matt McGlon and Penn State have found success with type of offense. Illinois has struggled with turnovers, allowing 45 points (six touchdowns) off of its 11 turnovers; Penn State has a +4 turnover margin, averaging one per game. The Illini have a banged-up offensive line, which allows more sacks than any team in the conference; Penn State is one of the best pass-rushing teams, averaging nearly three per game.
But that's all on paper, and who reads paper anymore anyway? When Big Ten play begins Saturday, stats and trends can be thrown out the window. Penn State's front seven needs to control the line of scrimmage and keep Illinois' running tandem of Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young in check, and they also have to keep an eye on their receiving ability. Ferguson and Young are two of three most targeted receivers for Nathan Scheelhaase and/or Reilly O'Toole, and in its first four games, Penn State has struggled with passes being completed in the flats. Better believe Tim Beckman has scoped out that cushion and intends to test it Saturday in front of an alternating striped orange and blue Memorial Stadium Saturday.
While Penn State is likely to depend on its quick-attack passing game, it'll also need to involve its running game - which should include Derek Day and Bill Belton who are both returning from injuries. In its two wins combined, Illinois allowed just 90 yards of rushing offense, including a -6-yard performance against Western Michigan. But in its two losses, Illinois gave up 192 yards to Arizona State and 119 to Louisiana Tech in a rout.
The Illini have tons of talent across the defensive line and two dangerous linebackers in Jonathan Brown and freshman Mason Monheim, and they're able to shut down Penn State's rushing attack. If they do, Illinois will win. But Penn State's offensive line is improving each game, Donovan Smith should be back at left tackle and I like Matt Stankiewitch's chances against nose tackle Akeem Spence, an Outland Trophy candidate, and Monheim.
Penn State - 21
Illinois - 20
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