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No. 10 Penn State at Illinois: Game Preview

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It’s time for Friday Night Lights as Penn State opens up Big Ten play against the Illini.

Penn State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Penn State kicks off Big Ten play with a road trip to Champaign for a Friday night battle.

(10)Penn State (3-0) vs. Illinois (2-1)

Kickoff: 9 p.m., Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL

The Betting Line: Penn State -27

TV: FS1- Justin Kutcher (play-by-play), Petros Papadakis (analyst), DeMarco Murray (sideline)

Weather: Friday will be a hot day in the upper-80s, with temperatures falling into the mid-60s with a chance of storms in the evening.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 39-17, 5th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 63-32, 7th Year

VS. ILLINOIS: 1-1

Lovie Smith:

ILLINOIS RECORD: 7-20, 3rd Year

OVERALL RECORD: 96-107, 14th Season

VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting

NOW THE FUN PART....

ILLINOIS OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

It’s unclear who will be behind center for the Illini on Friday, as starting quarterback A.J. Bush remains questionable following a hamstring injury in week two. Bush is a dynamic dual-threat grad transfer from Virginia Tech who was off to a fast start for the Illini, connecting on 18 of 30 passing attempts. He also plays a large part of the ground attack as well, rushing for 139 yards in a close contest against Kent State in the season opener. Lovie Smith stated that Bush is “getting better,” but if he is not ready to go by Friday, freshman M.J. Rivers will continue as the starter. Rivers is coming off a solid performance against South Florida, where he mostly played it safe with short passing attempts and didn’t take any major risks. He completed 69 percent of his passes, very nice for a first start, but threw for just 168 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He also does not have the same abilities as Bush as a runner, eliminating that dimension of the Illini offense.

The Illini offensive line has given up nine sacks in three games, and Penn State’s defense is currently second in the nation in sacks. This could doom the Illinois offense as they look to slow down an athletic and deep defensive line.

Illinois does a better job at running the ball, and will likely focus on that strength to control the clock and keep Trace McSorley on the sidelines. They have two talented options at running back who share the load equally. Sophomore Mike Epstein is a powerful runner who can also go for a big gain. He’s coming off back-to-back 100-plus yard performances, and is also being used more out of the backfield. Junior Reggie Corbin has also proven to be a reliable force, and averaged 8.2 yards on 12 carries a week ago against South Florida.

The Illini’s top receiver was set to be Mike Dudek, who sadly will miss the remainder of the 2018 season with an injury. No one has really been able to step up in his place yet, and the Illini do not appear to have a serious downfield threat to stretch a defense.

This is another week, and another great opportunity for Penn State’s young linebackers to learn and improve. Micah Parsons and Jesse Luketa have especially shown growth, but will be challenged by Ohio State’s plethora of playmakers in another week (yes, I know ILLINOIS ILLINOIS ILLINOIS ILLINOIS ILLINOIS).

Speaking of showing growth, first-year starter Garrett Taylor has improved each week at safety, while Tariq Castro-Fields is leaving no doubt that he’s a star-in-the-making at cornerback.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. ILLINOIS DEFENSE

The Nittany Lions offense enters week four averaging 53 points per game. They have shown signs of progress with each game, and don’t look to be slowing down any time soon. After a rough start to the season against Appalachian State, the offensive line has gelled and looks to finally develop into a true strength. Trace McSorley continues his Heisman candidacy by consistently creating big plays with his arms and legs, being a clutch passer when needed and providing the leadership that is absolutely necessary for a championship team. KJ Hamler has emerged as Penn State’s next great all-around playmaker, while Juwan Johnson’s role seems to be in decline. Miles Sanders has been phenomenal as a full-time starter, and Mark Allen has proven a capable backup who can make plays. But I’m probably telling you things that you already know.

So what will be different when Penn State lines up against the Illini defense? For starters, Tommy Stevens will be available to step into his LION role, which puts two quarterbacks on the field at the same time, and adds a dangerous dimension with Stevens’ ability to pass, run and receive. The coaches may want to emphasize the LION package to throw more at Ohio State to prepare for, or they may hold off in hopes of causing chaos by using the lineup for the first time of the season next week.

True Freshman Pat Freiermuth seems to have established himself at tight end, and could see his productivity rise as he becomes more comfortable in the offense. He is now listed as a co-starter on the depth chart, and looks to be the guy who is ready to replace Mike Gesicki.

This could be a big game for senior DeAndre Thompkins as well. While he has been outstanding as a punt returner, he did not record a catch in the first two weeks, and had three drops against Pitt on a rainy evening. He bounced back with a 101-yard effort against Kent State, including a 40 yard touchdown that will be one of the highlights of the 2018 season. This is his opportunity to prove he will be among the core components of the offense moving forward.

The Illinois defense has shown some strides thus far in 2018, and held South Florida to a respectable 25 points last week. Linebacker Jake Hanson is the main playmaker, leading the team in tackles (26) and TFLs (6). He has yet to record a sack in 2018, and no member of the Illinois defense has more than a single sack on the year. Sophomore defensive tackle Jamal Woods has shown tremendous potential and will be a challenge for Penn State’s interior line. He made an immediate impact as a true freshman last season, and has 4 TFLs through the first three games of his sophomore campaign. Another star-on-the-rise is true freshman Jartavius Martin, who already has two interceptions.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Chase McLaughlin is off to a spectacular start in his senior year, nailing a 50-plus yard field goal in all three games. He has made all seven attempts on the season, despite six of them being at least 40 yards. Sophomore punter Blake Hayes also has a big leg, averaging 46.1 yards per punt on the season, with longs of 62 and 69 yards.

Whatever you do, do not take a bathroom break or run to the fridge when the Nittany Lions are set to return a kick. KJ Hamler and DeAndre Thompkins are both absolutely electric in the return game, and each have a chance to reach the end zone regardless of the coverage in front of them.

Mike Dudek was Illinois’ top punt returner, and he has been sorely missed in the return game. However, Stanley Green is averaging infinity yards per return, which is mighty impressive. True freshman Carlos Sandy has emerged at kick returner, averaging 22.7 yards per return.

PREDICTION

Penn State-49, Illinois-10

On paper, this has the feel of a trap game. A late Friday game on the road against a lightly-regarded opponent with the biggest regular season game of the year a week ahead. But despite this team’s youth, the match-up plays well in favor of the Nittany Lions that they should have no trouble taking care of business.

As long as Penn State can start off hot, they can bury the Illini by halftime. A couple quick touchdown strikes to start the game will force Illinois to abandon the run and put the ball in the air, allowing Penn State’s defense to pin its ears back and get after the quarterback, effectively shutting them down as this match-up favors heavily in the Nittany Lions favor.

Trace McSorley finishes with 290 yards and three touchdowns, adding another on the ground. Miles Sanders goes for 120 yards on the ground, while DeAndre Thompkins hits paydirt twice- once as a receiver, once as a punt returner.

Shareef Miller continues his dominant streak with 2.5 sacks, while Kevin Givens gets a sack and 3 TFLs. Micah Parsons joins the sack party while also forcing a fumble, and Amani Oruwariye picks off his third pass of the young season. The good guys roll.