ILLINOIS OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE Illini quarterback Wes Lunt is having a highly productive junior campaign as Illinois has changed its offense to a more pass-heavy attack to make up for a mediocre running game. The Oklahoma State transfer is completing 57.3 percent of passes for 1,702 yards to go along with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. Lunt is a tall drop back quarterback who is not a threat to run the ball, something that will be very welcomed as Penn State's defense has struggled to catch mobile quarterbacks in the last two weeks against Ohio State and Maryland. Lunt is especially accurate on short-to-mid range passes and is efficient enough to dink-and-dunk his way down the field into scoring position. Expect Penn State to focus on getting pressure on Lunt with its stellar front four and adding plenty of blitzes from different areas to keep him from getting too comfortable in the pocket.
Josh Ferguson is Illinois' most talented running back, but has not played since October 3 while he recovers from a shoulder injury. His status for Saturday is still unknown. If he is unable to return, true freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn will carry the load. Vaughn has been solid as a role player and starter throughout the season, but has not done much to make a name for himself around the Big Ten just yet. He can be productive out of he backfield but is rarely targeted by Lunt.
Lunt does a tremendous job of distributing the ball to many different receivers, but his primary target is Geronimo Allison. Allison is having a tremendous senior season with 48 receptions for 700 yards and three touchdowns in seven games. At 6-4 and 200 lbs., he can be difficult to handle in single coverage, so expect Jordan Lucas to provide support for whichever cornerback is charged with stopping Allison on Saturday. Desmond Cain and Marchie Murdock are excellent possession receivers who know how to get open, with Murdock being especially effective in the red zone. Sophomore Malik Turner is more of a big-play threat and has built an excellent rapport with Lunt during the past four games. Mike Dudek, who gave the Nittany Lions secondary fits throughout the 2014 contest, is still recovering from a torn ACL and is seeking a medical redshirt season.
While the Illinois offensive line struggles in run blocking, they do an excellent job of keeping Lunt upright and giving him time to scan the field. They should face their biggest challenge of the season against Penn State's front four on Saturday.
It should be noted that while the Illini offense got off to a prolific start, their productivity has fallen back down to earth during the past four games against Big Ten competition.
ILLINOIS DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE The Illini run a 4-2-5 scheme that is solid throughout with few glaring weaknesses. It's biggest struggle by far is getting to the quarterback, which as Penn State fans know all too well, could be a much different story on Saturday. Outside linebacker Dawuane Smoot is the most likely Illini defender to wreak havoc in the Nittany Lions backfield, especially facing off against a struggling line that will once again be without the services of its best player, Andrew Nelson. Smoot has garnered five sacks and 11.5 negative hits on the season, and is one of only two Illini defender with multiple sacks (the other being reserve defensive end and pass-rush specialist Carroll Phillips, who has two).
Illinois has an excellent run-stuffing free safety in Clayton Frejedelem, who leads the team in tackles with 10.4 per game. Middle linebacker T.J. Neal does an excellent job of patrolling the field and has the quickness to do some damage in the backfield. Jared "Chunky" Clements is not only an excellent run-stuffer, but has the speed to stop a play before it can even get started. To put it bluntly, Penn State's oft-maligned offensive line will have their work cut out for them to keep the offense moving on Saturday.
It will be interesting to see if freshman wonder Saquon Barkley will be able to get off the ground following a ho-hum performance against Maryland in which the Terps focused solely on limiting his productivity. Illinois has the balance on defense to do the same, while also adjust to focus on the passing game if Hackenberg gets rolling again this week.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Illinois kicker Taylor Zalewski is reliable with shorter kicks but struggles with attempts beyond 40 yards. The Illini have somehow managed to struggle in the punting game even more so than the Nittany Lions, which means that Penn State may not be in an automatic disadvantage when it comes to field position for once. Junior Ryan Frain has an average of just 38.9 yards per punt with a high of 55 yards. In fairness to Daniel Pasquariello, he had a solid if no spectacular outing against Maryland with no major miscues.
PENN STATE-24 ILLINOIS-17 This game could go a number of ways based on the match-ups, and the rise of a stingy Illinois defense should greatly concern the Nittany Lions. However, I think the Illini's one-dimensional offense will ultimately be their demise as Penn State gets regular pressure on Lunt, especially in the fourth quarter when they typically shine the brightest.
The game should be low-scoring throughout, but Penn State produces enough big plays through the legs of Saquon Barkley and the arm of a resurgent Christian Hackenberg, who finds Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton in the end zone. On defense, Trevor Williams and John Reid each contribute an interception thanks to a frantic Nittany Lions rush, while Anthony Zettel finishes with 2.5 sacks and a key fumble return late in the game.