Blue/White Roundtable Week 5 - Penn State vs. Illinois

The Penn State blogosphere answers the most pressing questions about the Killer Z's, the emergence of Mike Hull, and this weekend's matchup against the Fighting Illini.

Blog mob . . . ASSEMBLE!

You are looking LIVE! at the Blue/White Roundtable, moving behind the goalposts in Champaign, Illinois, where the Nittany Lions square off against the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois!

Here's how this goes - every week, yours truly will pose a variety of questions to Penn State bloggers from every corner of the Nittany Lion internet. We'll post the greatest hits here each week, but make sure to check out our blogging brethren for their full responses every week!

Say hello to this week's panelists - our own Cari Greene, Ali Soheilian, Bill Engel, Matthew Pencek, Michael Canzoneri, Timothy Johnson and LB from PennLive's 50-Yard Lion Blog, Kevin McGuire from The Nittany Lions Den, and all of the D-O-double-G's from JoePa's Doghouse!

Our ground attack finally got moving this week by using two sturdy power backs, Michael Zordich and Zach Zwinak. Is the power running game a better fit for this offense than Bill Belton? How much of a difference can Belton make when he returns?

Kevin: While it was nice to see a standard ground-pound style offense with Zordich and Zwinak getting some carries, I still feel there is a tremendous value to having a healthy Bill Belton on the field to mix things up a bit. Having a guy who can spread things out behind the line of scrimmage seems to be something we should expect from O'Brien moving forward and if Belton is indeed back this week I would expect to see that became part of the game plan.

Cari: Belton is shiftier, so he gives our running game a different dimension. I don't necessarily think it will be much of a deal this week, when our big backs (and offensive line) should be able to have its way against the Illinois front seven, but it will probably make a difference later on in the season when we go up against teams like Iowa, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, who always tend to have big bodies up front. We'll need a more-elusive guy who can shift in space. And while Zordich looks great catching passes out of the backfield (and downfield) last week, Belton will be more of a threat in the passing game too, which opens up the playbook even more.

Rowlff Dogg: Penn State's depth at running back is a tremendous luxury to have. Anything that gives Bill O'Brien more offensive options is a huge plus. Belton brings the home run threat that none of the other backs possess. As the offense continues to improve, there will be more ways to get playmakers the ball in space. I love flashing the Zoltan "Z" every time Zordich or Zwinak touch the ball, but I can't wait to see how a healthy Belton improves the offense.

Timothy: I think I could've put up some decent rushing numbers on Saturday-Temple's front seven looked awfully overwhelmed by our improving O-Line all afternoon. As for Belton, the sample size is still too small for me to really assess whether he suits our new offense better than Zordich and Zwinak. The B1G has always prided itself on "smashmouth" football, but even so, having Belton available can't hurt-it just adds an extra dimension to our offensive game plan.

The Underdogs: We need him in the rotation as Belton is the only legitimate big play-slash-receiving threat out of the backfield. Otherwise, we're making it difficult on ourselves having to churn out 15- and 17-play drives with 7 first downs inching the ball down the field, which is more of an NFL trait. In college, you need to bust big plays. Though, Belton must learn to hold onto the ball better if he's to see the field.

Ali: Power running? I understand why everyone think these guys are just power running backs, but they hit the hole hard and have made people miss, while also churning out yards after contact. I think Zordich's draft stock has shot up, showing the ability to be a versatile player in the mold of NFL running back, Peyton Hillis. As for Zwinak, he was a pleasant surprise, and on some plays flashed some speed and the potential that he could break some big plays. I don't necessarily think its a better fit, but I think its the perfect complement to a guy like Belton, who can get to the edge or even break big ones on misdirection plays. I like the balance and I like the make up with all of those guys in there.

Mike Hull seems to be coming into his own, and Ted Roof has apparently created a special "Road Runner" package to take advantage of his unique speed. What kind of role do you see him playing the rest of the season in this defense?

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Rowlff Dogg: Looney Tunes has made it extremely clear that the role of the Roadrunner is to out-run and frustrate Wile E. Coyote. I think Hull's objective is quite similar: use your speed to frustrate the offense. I love that Roof is looking for unique ways to protect the vulnerable secondary by doing whatever it takes to get pressure on the quarterback.

Kevin: Mike Hull is a guy I have been waiting for to become more a part of the defensive planning and scheme, so I am interested to see if he becomes more active in regular duty moving forward. I still feel he is behind the main three (Hodges, Carson and Mauti) but if Penn State is matched up against a speedy offense that likes to spread the ball around the field, having Hull see some more reps over a slower Mauti or Carson is certainly worth checking out.

LB: Mike Hull seems to just get more impressive as the season progresses, and he still has room to grow. While he can be overshadowed at times by some of the other big names on defense, Michael Mauti in particular, he has more big plays just waiting to come out and increasingly will be a thorn in opponents' sides down the road.

Michael: Although it was great seeing him run through the line untouched for that sack this past week, I would feel better if he plugged a hole in the secondary.

Bill: Hull is a special athlete and is now starting to put it all together on the field. I am not surprised the coaches would figure out a way to get him on the field. If Hull can continue to improve in pass coverage, he will see more time in place of Carson on obvious passing downs. The future at Linebacker U. looks bright with Hull playing alongside Ben Kline and Nyeem Wartman.

We all know the stories about how the Illinois coaches commandeering State College and lingering outside of players' apartments in the hours after the NCAA sanctions were issued. Has this game been circled on the calendar for the Coach O'Brien and his staff? Will those feelings have an impact on this game?

J Schnauzer: What matters most is the impact it left on the players. The players were relatively calm when the repercussions of the sanctions were being felt, but the Beckmanville camping outside player's apartments and training facilities left a nasty impression. I think the players will take it out on Illinois, but they could be burned by overpursuits, penalties, and the other sorts of things that occur when a team has bitter feelings towards the other side.

Cari: Literally circled? No. In their minds, though, I definitely think this is a game they want to win. The new staff (and the old staff) doesn't seem like the kind of group to let their anger get the better of them in a game like this, but I wouldn't be surprised if they try to run up the score just a tad. I think BOB will be more apt to throw big later, run the ball down their throats, and celebrate big hits and big plays. I, for one, can't wait to see it.

I actually think it's more circled in the minds of the players, who saw these guys trying to recruit them without their consent. I'm more worried about the players' emotions getting the best of them, though I'm hopeful that the coaching staff will bring them down to earth a little bit.

Matthew: There is little doubt this has been a long anticipated game for Penn State players, coaches, and fans. It was the latest in long line of incidents proving the Big 10 has not always had Penn State's back by permitting a fellow conference member to poach players. My concern about the emotion is the way the team performed when feelings were high in the season opener against Ohio. Extra motivation is great, hopefully that are not too amped up for Saturday's game

Rowlff Dogg: Before the season started, O'Brien circled this game in red marker. Then he drew a skull and crossbones beside it. While I am sure there is extra motivation to send a message this week, O'Brien's main focus will be on the continued improvement of his team. I do think that the harbored animosity might tempt O'Brien to dig a little deeper into his playbook for some stuff he hasn't shown yet. Whether that translates into more points is all predicated on keeping the team level-headed enough to simply execute and not try to kill people.

Ali: You'd be a fool not to believe that this game carries some extra weight. Not only is it the first BIG game of O'Brien's career, but its also against the most disrespectful coach in the conference. The BIG is supposed to be a brotherhood, where the coaches compete on the field and off the field, but they carry a mutual respect in having each other's backs within the conference. That unspoken "honor code" went out the window when Urban went to Columbus and Beckman signed with the Illini. Their actions have definitely left OB and the players with a bad taste in their mouths. I would expect this game to be much more personal than everyone is chalking it up to be.

The Underdogs: I guarantee the coaches won't say anything publicly nor will they likely alter their typical weekly routine as football is every bit as much about routine and repetition as it is about Xs and Os and Jimmy's and Joe's. With that said, what did the Illinois coaches accomplish besides wasting their own time and money while being publicly shamed as "culture vultures." That they pulled not a single meaningful transfer was enough of a victory for a private smirk from the PSU staff already. If there is anything different, it might be the way they get a little bit more motivation out of the players who were clearly bothered the most by their routine being interrupted by coaches and campfires outside their dorms.

Predictions?

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Cari: I think Illinois gets some scores late, but we dominate this game statistically from the get go. In the ballpark of 34-17, with 20 of those Penn State points coming in the first 20 minutes of play; I do, however, think our run of not allowing touchdowns in the first half will be over this week.

Kevin: After watching the way Illinois has started this season I feel confident that a healthy Penn State offense can do some damage in this game, and I still feel Penn State's defense is going to be tough to score against most of this season. Everything tells me to go with Penn State in this one, but there is just something about it that I do not like and I can't exactly put my finger on it.

I'll say Illinois nips Penn State, 24-23.

The Underdogs: Illinois is pretty bad. We might be looking at yet another team PSU matches up very well against. They can't pass nor can they defend the pass having been bombed twice by high octane hurry-up style spread-passing offenses. While we're not exactly a spread team nor that high octane (more like medium octane) we have shown the ability to move the ball thru the air. Illinois will have to chew up yards and get key plays and consistency out of a QB position perhaps without such capabilities. If we continue to see good, consistent play out of McGlowin' (you can't stop his shine) while he amazingly and deftly escapes the rush, we're looking at a third straight victory. PSU wins 27-20.

Rowlff Dogg: Penn State 36, Illinois 17. A few new plays/looks translate into a few more points. Also of note, I encourage everyone to abstain from drinking any Miller High Life during the game as a slight at the "Champaign" of Beers...

J Schnauzer: After a few early slip-ups, I think Penn State pulls away in the 2nd half. Penn State 38, Illinois 14.

LB: Away from Beaver Stadium, the team may struggle more than last week, but they'll ultimately play stronger than Illinois and win, 28-17.

Michael: Matt McGloin ties Kerry Collins record for the number of 300+ Passing Yards Games by a Penn State Quarterback. Illinois coaches will forget how to get to State College. Penn State still doesn't get a single vote for the Top 25.

Bill: I really hate when teams are upset the week before playing the Lions. We saw it several times last year including Nebraska who had just suffered a loss to NW at home before turning things around at Beaver Stadium. I expect Illinois to bounce back after last week's disaster as they open Big Ten play at home. Penn State can win comfortably if they clean up their pass coverage and find a way to stop leaving so many points on the field. Otherwise, a hostile environment and the absence of a kicking game could spell our demise. Really hope I am wrong but going with 17-16 Illinois.

Timothy: Illinois isn't very good. They got run off their own field by a hilariously undisciplined Louisiana Tech squad. The Illini's QB situation is a mess, and everyone on offense loves sharing the ball with opposing defenses. This is a reflection of the coaching staff, which has proven to have no integrity by (unsuccessfully) groveling on our players' doorsteps this summer.

All Penn State has done throughout its first four games under BOB is improve. Playing on the road doesn't seem to bother anyone except our kicker. Our defense brings it on every single play. If McGloin continues to be steady at the helm, Sam Ficken doesn't get involved, and our linebackers don't return punts, this game is ours. Penn State 31, Illinois 13.

As an aside, remember how much fun the Illinois game was last year? Those were simpler times.

Matthew: I did not think Illinois was very good, why else would all their coaches be cruising for Penn State players, but giving up over 50 points at home against Louisiana Tech is downright embarrassing. Illinois knows the Nits are coming into this with a chip on their shoulder and the Illini should have a better effort this week. That being said, Penn State's Red Zone offense will do more to prevent a rout in this game then anything the Illinois defense presents. Penn State 28, Illinois 20.

Ali: I know that I am completely insane, but I'm definitely going out on a limb in saying that this is going to be a blowout. With the team growing into their schemes and the confidence brewing from the last couple of wins, I think we take it to Illinois in this one. Coach O'Brien game plans even more of a spread attack against their worthless defense, and the defense continues to force turnovers against their struggling offense. Penn State 38 Illinois 17.


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