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Penn State vs. Illinois: Game Preview

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The Nittany Lions look to keep their winning streak alive in the championship week crossover game.

Penn State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Nittany Lions look for its fourth consecutive win against an Illinois team that has just moved on from the Lovie Smith era.

Penn State (3-5) vs. Illinois (2-5)

Kickoff: 5:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College, PA

The Betting Line: Penn State -15

TV: FS1 - Corey Provus (play-by-play), Robert Smith (analyst)

Weather: A cold evening with temperatures right around freezing, with light wind and possible snow showers.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 59-28, 7th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 83-43, 10th Year

VS. ILLINOIS: 2-1

Rod Smith (Interim Head Coach):

ILLINOIS RECORD: 0-0

OVERALL RECORD: 0-0

VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting

FUN FACTS

ILLINOIS OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

Quarterback Brandon Peters began his career as a highly-coveted recruit at Michigan before transferring to Illinois. Unfortunately, his career has not taken off at his new location. Peters is coming off an atrocious 3-for-14 outing against a good Northwestern defense with just 21 passing yards. He had a similar outing against Wisconsin earlier in the season, going 8-of-19 for 87 yards in a 45-7 loss to Wisconsin. While Peters has the arm strength and body type of a classic dropback passer at 6-5, 220 lbs., he is a surprisingly effective runner as well.

Freshman Isaiah Williams has seen time under center as well, fairing slightly better by going 4-of-8 on Saturday. However, he was just 7-of-16 the prior week against Iowa and had a similar outing by going 7-of-18 against Rutgers. However, he did make up for it with a monster game on the ground, running for 196 yards and a score.

Josh Imatorbhebhe is a big, physical wideout who is the most reliable target for the Illini (ed. note- following publication, Imatorbhebhe announced he is entering the NFL Draft and will not play on Saturday). Tight end Daniel Barker is another imposing figure who plays a large role in the passing game. Barker caught his fist touchdown of the season two weeks ago against Iowa, in a game where he recorded four receptions for 40 yards.

The Illini have a nice tandem of running backs in Chase Brown and Mike Epstein. Brown leads the way with 510 yards and 5.5 yards per carry, but the staff seems to stick with the hot hand (or hot legs?) from week to week. Brown has rushed for 394 yards in the past four weeks, which include 110 yards against Nebraska and a season-high 131 yards against Rutgers. Epstein has a higher per-carry average with 5.9 yards, and also has two 100-plus yard games in 2020.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. ILLINOIS DEFENSE

The Illinois defense has a go-for-broke philosophy. They are good at being disruptive and making plays. However, the gambles taken to create these plays also led to them giving up big plays as well. This may result in an uneven afternoon for the Nittany Lions offense. Some drives will be stopped dead in their tracks, while others could result in Jahan Dotson, Parker Washington, Keyvone Lee, Sean Clifford, etc., racing down the field. It could be an interesting afternoon toggling between thrilling and frustrating moments.

Leading the charge is linebacker Jake Hansen, who has accumulated 59 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, with two interceptions, and two forced fumbles and recoveries. Outside linebacker Khalan Tolson can be disruptive off the edge, while defensive end Owen Carney has made his way to the quarterback with regularity this season. As a team, the Illini have produced 13 sacks and 40 TFLs, as well as seven interceptions, eight forced fumbles with seven of those being recovered.

Penn State may counteract with misdirection and passing plays that quickly get the ball out of Clifford’s hands. This could mean a productive day for tight end Brenton Strange, who has become a reliable part of the passing game with the absence of Pat Freiermuth. Expect some big plays from Dotson and Washington, as they should often find themselves in single coverage.

By this time, we know to expect Clifford and Will Levis will get snaps. While Levis has been used primarily as a short-yardage back in response to the absence of Noah Cain, he did connect on all three of his pass attempts against Michigan State last week for 54 yards, as well as the 36 yards and touchdown he contributed with his legs. Clifford has cleaned up his game as of late, throwing just one interception during the three game winning streak, compared to eight interceptions during the abysmal 0-5 start.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Illini kicker James McCourt is six-of-10 this season, with a long of 47 yards. He missed both attempts of 50-plus yards this season, but did nail a 57-yarder and was four-of-five for 50 yard-plus attempts in 2019. They have a standout punter in senior Blake Hayes, an Aussie-style kicker who could be on an NFL roster next fall. He is boasting a 43.7 yard average this season, and had an even more impressive 44.6 yard average a year ago. Hayes regularly flips the field with 60-70 yard punts.

Wide receiver Khmari Thompson is the primary kick returner, averaging a solid 19.5 yards per return with a long of 35 yards.

PREDICTION

Penn State-35, Illinois-17

Something really stuck out to me in the fourth quarter of last week’s victory against Michigan State. For the first time this season, the team looked like they were bonded and having serious fun. First there was the instant classic celebration following Dotson’s incredible 81-yard punt return touchdown where he was hoisted in the air and carried up and down the sideline. Moments later (:14 in football time, to be precise), the sideline erupted after freshman defensive end Amin Vanover made a one-handed snag of an errant pass.

This team has clearly come a long ways in a few short weeks. They somehow managed to stay on track after a disastrous start, during an overall troublesome year, where it would have been so easy to simply go through the motions until the season came to a merciful end. Instead, they fought back, cleaned up mistakes that were holding them back, and rededicated themselves to the back-half of the season.

An entire host of players who were tossed into the fire have shown rapid development, and have given this team a new attitude. They are playing as a complete team who obviously have each others backs. They are playing with confidence and the expectation of victory.

I do expect Illinois to put up a fight, despite the firing of Lovie Smith. This game could easily be a tryout for whoever is leading the Illini next fall. But Penn State is playing with purpose, which means they will be able to line up against the Illini and take care of business.

Jahan Dotson scores on an 81-yard touchdown reception to match his punt return from a week ago, Parker Washington proves that he’s the Big Ten’s top freshman with a 110 yard receiving day and two scores, while Sean Clifford manages another long touchdown run.

On defense, Jaquan Brisker continues his hot streak with eight tackles, a sack and forced fumble, while Shaka Toney picks up two sacks in his (actual) final game in Beaver Stadium.

The good guys extend their winning streak, then wait to see what may be next.