Preview: Penn State (2-2) at Illinois (2-2)

Mike Pettigano/Black Shoe Diaries

What was that about eight Illinois coaches hanging around State College? Time to preview this sucker...

Penn St. Nittany Lions (2-2) vs. Illinois Fighting Illini (2-2)

Kickoff: 12 p.m. Memorial Stadium (60,670), Champaign, IL
The Line: Illinois -1
TV: ESPN Dave Pasch (p-by-p), Brian Griese (analyst), Jenn Brown (sideline)
Weather: 75 degrees. Sunny. Light/moderate breeze.

COACHES:

Bill O'Brien:
PENN STATE RECORD: 2-2, 1st year
OVERALL RECORD: Same
VS. ILLINOIS: First Meeting

Douche Tim Beckman
ILLINOIS RECORD: 2-2, 1st year
OVERALL RECORD: 23-18, 4th year
VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting

NOW THE FUN PART

Illinois Offense vs PSU Defense -

Usually, it's been Penn State the last few years fielding a "two-headed... something" at quarterback. This weekend, it will be Illinois that plays both Reilly O'Toole and Nate Scheelhaase. Whether or not they're effective remains to be seen. Two of the last three weeks Illinois has been blown away by less-than world beaters. It hasn't necessarily been due to any offensive deficiencies, but the injury to Scheelhaase in the opener has thrown this position into flux. The Illini haven't established any sort of offensive identity this season. Without any sort of consistency from the quarterbacks--not entirely their fault, either--it's extremely difficult to get a good feel for what Illinois will try to do against the Penn State defense.

The Penn State defense, meanwhile, knows exactly what it will do against the Illinois offense--force turnovers, pressure the pocket, and shut down the run game. Sounds like every defensive gameplan in the world, right? Sure. But Penn State has been improving drastically as the season progresses, a big part of that coming on the defensive side of the ball. Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges are doing what they do. Even the backups are really starting to come into their own, like Anthony Zettel and Mike Hull. Against Illinois, the Nittany Lion secondary will have to play as sharp as it's done the last two weeks, focusing on shutting down the Illini's top target, son-of-a-Penn-Stater Ryan Lankford. But if the Penn State defensive front applies the kind of pressure on the pocket it has been doing since the Virginia game, O'Toole or Scheelhaase might not even have a chance to get the ball to an open receiver.

2012 Penn State vs Navy-92

Penn State still hasn't given up a a single point in the first quarter. The Nittany Lions have allowed nine total points before halftime this season.

PSU Offense vs Illinois Defense -

I think I said something to this effect last week, but this week could be fun for the O'Brien offense. I heard or read an analysis of the Illinois-ULL game, where the Ragin' Cajuns had receivers without an Illini defender within five yards of them when they caught the ball. Judging by how the Illinois defensive backfield played against Arizona State, I'm not going to put my money on this unit suddenly improving in the course of a week. O'Brien calls an offensive game probably unlike anything Illinois will face all year long, particularly in terms of aggressiveness in the pass game.

2012 Penn State vs Navy-41

Penn State's offensive line, despite losing four senior starters from 2011, has been stellar in keeping Matt McGloin off he turf. Have the hogs been perfect? No. But against a team like Illinois, perfect isn't required, especially if Bill Belton is going to return as expected this week. Penn State was able to get a really nice rushing day using two FULLBACKS against Temple. The Illinois defense won't be as porous as the Owls', but O'Brien and McGloin only need the ground game to be threatening for it to allow the pass game to sing. Illinois will have to put its faith in playmakers like Johnathan Brown and Michael Buchanan. But when a defense is as mediocre as this one, two players might not be able to save it. We saw that against the Sun Devils and Ragin' Cajuns.

Special Teams -

Even I'm starting to lose faith in Penn State's special teams. It takes a lot to make me loose faith like this, but the kicking game is so bad at this point, I'd have to get my head checked if I didn't look at this as a serious issue for Penn State moving forward. Sam Ficken made a field goal last week, while Alex Butterworth is hit-or-miss on punts. Jesse Della-Valle provided a bit of a spark on punt returns, but is it something we should hold our breath for? Eh. Meanwhile, Illinois has been fortunate to have punter Justin DuVernois bombing away, which might prove pivotal to forcing Penn State into long-field situations on offense.

Prediction -

It's really tough not to look at these two teams and see the stark difference in trajectory for each. I'm very bullish on Penn State. Illinois, more in the bear market territory. That could cause a problem, however. This will be the Nittany Lions' first Big Ten road game. It's not against a Big Ten title contender or anything (though, stranger things have happened), but this isn't Navy or Temple lining up against Penn State on Saturday. Illinois has good athletes and are looking for "revenge" after last year's clunker-to-classic loss in Beaver Stadium. Then again, guys like Mauti and Hodges are probably taping photos of Beckman's face to the tackling dummies this week, after the whole transfer/recruiting hullabaloo this summer. Vegas likes the Illini by the slimmest of margins. Not me.

Penn State 27 - Illinois 17


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