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Scouting the Fighting Illini

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Why this team? Why now? Where's Minnesota, Northwestern, or Indiana on the schedule when you need them? Illinois is a team that scares me to death because I just don't know what to expect from them. Zook has been assembling talent out there like crazy. They almost pulled off the upset in Happy Valley last year. This year they get us at home and the Nittany Lions are licking their wounds from the Michigan game. This team is up and coming and they will soon pull a big upset somewhere. This contest could end up a blowout for Penn State or it could be our second loss in a row.

Illinois On Offense

I put together some highlights of some things the Illini like to do with this new football highlight reel doohicky you may start seeing pop up on the other SBN blogs. I must say it's pretty cool. Anyway, let's take a look at their running game. (Note: The videos don't seem to be working well at the moment. Hopefully that will improve. Close your eyes and imagine Williams and Mendenhall running all over the place.)


NCAA Football Highlights on Veoh.com

Here are some things they like to do in the passing game.


NCAA Football Highlights on Veoh.com

You can tell the Illini like to run the spread option like most teams with athletic quarterbacks are doing these days. When you think of spreading the field with three wide receivers your first instinct is to think the offense is looking to pass to set up the run. But some people use the spread to run to set up the pass. Look at some of the highlights on the running plays where the Illini run out of the spread and you'll notice the defense hardly has anyone in the box. This gives the offense the ability to examine the field and create matchups where they can get one blocker on each body in that zone.

The Illini are a very run heavy team. They are the #5 rushing offense in the country averaging 265 yards per game. To date they have attempted 192 rushing plays to only 114 passing plays. Rashard Mendenhall is on his way to a monster season with 536 yards and 7 TD already though four games. And of course Juice Williams poses a dangerous threat as he could turn a designed passing play into a 20 yard rushing play at any time.

Nobody knows what to think about Juice's passing game yet. He's greatly improved over last year and shows signs of big play potential, but he still bounces a few balls and shows inconsistency in making accurate passes. He's got a legitimate weapon to throw to in Arrelious Benn, the true freshman with 18 catches and 202 yards.

The question for the Nittany Lions is how to defend this team? Do you go to the nickel when they spread you out giving them the one-on-one matchups they want to see in the running game? Or do you play your base defense and try to force them to beat you through the air?

If I were Tom Bradley I would start out in my base 4-3 defense and stop the running game. I'm not convinced Juice is that good of a passer yet. If they can stop the run on first and second down and force a lot of third and longs I like our chances. But even then they have to focus on containing Juice. The defensive ends have to control their upfield rush to keep him in the pocket. I would assign either Connor, Lee, or Sales to spy Williams and jump him if he starts to scramble. This may be a good week for the freshman Navarro Bowman to see a lot of playing time with his blazing speed.

If the wide receivers suddenly start to get open and Juice turns into Joe Montana we can go to the nickel, but my thinking is we should always expect the run on first and second down and adjust if it's not.

Illinois on Defense

On defense the Illini have been doing a solid job of stopping the run as they rank #19 in the country in rushing defense. J Leman is once again the wrecking ball in the middle with 49 tackles already this year. I haven't seen enough of Leman play to make this judgement, but I'm always suspicious when I see a player with that many tackles. Is he just all over the field as the only competent member of the defense making plays? Or are offenses picking on him running right at him. Geno Capone always had a ton of tackles when he played middle linebacker at Penn State, but teams ran right at him and they were all seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Another case in point: Lydell Sargeant is third in tackles for Penn State...as a cornerback. So we'll find out this Saturday if J Leman is the real deal or the weak link of this defense. But regardless of how good he is or isn't, you have to give J Leman props. Nobody rocks the mullett and American flag necktie like he does.

Joe Dirt eat your heart out.

I wish I could tell you what Illinois will do on defense, but does it really matter? We're Penn State. We'll come out running on first and second down and ask our average quarterback to convert on third and nine. I'm sure my knuckles will be white and I'll be ready to kick the dog by the end of the first quarter.

Last year we went ultra conservative against Illinois for whatever reason. Deon Butler commented after the game the corners and safeties were cheating to the sideline and we still threw it there. This year I expect different things. I think last week was an epiphany for the coaches. Mark down September 22 as the low point for this offense. After watching the tape and seeing wide recievers running around wide open down the field they realize they can take some chances. At least I hope. Please God.

Special Teams

This is an area where Penn State should dominate the game. Illinois is #112 in net punting, #64 in punt returns, and #102 in kickoff returns. The lone bright spot is kicker Jason Reda who is 4-for-4 on the year, but he did have one PAT blocked.

Penn State on the other hand has been brilliant on special teams. Derrick Williams ranks #9 in the country in punt returns and A.J. Wallace is #3 in kickoff returns. Jeremy Boone is a stellar #18 in punting averaging nearly 44 yards per punt. Even Kevin Kelly has turned it around this year and hit 6-of-8 field goals. This should be an area of the game where Penn State has a clear advantage.

So What's Going To Happen?

I wish I knew. On paper we should dominate this team. But after last week I don't know what to expect from our offense. Will the coaches put together a good gameplan? Will Austin Scott and Anthony Morelli take care of the ball? These things could completely derail the train.

I think we'll come out slow like we have all year. We'll probably make some dumb mistakes and give up an easy score. But the defense will keep it close. I think special teams will give us one touchdown and the offense should have three good drives in the game. If they end in touchdowns we win the game. If we settle for field goals or no points we lose. I'll stick with the prediction I gave earlier in the week.

Illinois 14
Penn State 28