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Game Preview: No. 7 Penn State vs. Illinois

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Penn State looks to bounce back following its first loss of the season as they welcome Illinois for Homecoming.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

The Nittany Lions return from a much-needed bye week looking to bounce back from its first loss of the season.

#7 Penn State (5-1, 2-1) vs. Illinois (2-5, 1-3)

Kickoff: Noon, Beaver Stadium, State College, PA

The Betting Line: Penn State -24

TV: ABC - Bob Wischusen (play-by-play), Dan Orlovsky (analyst), Kris Budden (sideline)

Weather: A cloudy and cool day, with a low of 40 in the morning that will gradually warm up to the low 50s by the end of the game. There is only a slight chance of showers.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 65-29, 8th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 88-44, 11th Year

VS. ILLINOIS: 3-1

Bret Bielema:

ILLINOIS RECORD: 2-5, 1st Year

OVERALL RECORD: 99-63, 13th Year

VS. PENN STATE: 2-3

FUN FACTS

ILLINOIS OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

The Illini offense is led by two quarterbacks who arrived through the transfer portal from elsewhere in the Big Ten. Arthur Sitkowski, formerly of Rutgers, is the likely starter as Brandon Peters, formally of Michigan, is questionable following an injury against Wisconsin on Oct. 9. Both are tall drop back passers who do not factor in too strongly into the run game.

Sitkowski is off to a pedestrian start to the season, with a 51.2 completion percentage with 666 passing yards in his four appearances. He has done a good job of avoiding turnovers, with six touchdown passes to only one interception. He is coming off a rough outing against Wisconsin where he completed just eight of 27 passing attempts for 55 yards.

The Illini passing game relies heavily on Isaiah Williams, the top playmaker on offense. He has 32 receptions on the season, which is nearly three times the amount of catches than the second-leading receiver. However, defenses have had success slowing him down recently as he’s been held to just 11 catches for 68 yards and no touchdowns in the last three games. They also like to find creative ways to get athletic freshman quarterback Deuce Spann on the field. He’s second on the team with 117 receiving yards despite just catching four passes - with two of those resulting in touchdowns.

The running game is much different with a committee-approach between five different backs. Chase Brown leads the way with 414 rushing yards and three scores, as well as a lofty 6.9 yard per carry average. Joshua McCray is a bruising back who may be looked to churn out yards against Penn State’s stingy run defense. He recently had a 156 yard outing against Purdue in a narrow 13-9 loss.

This will be the first full game without defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, who was having an All-American type year before suffering a season-ending injury against Iowa.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. ILLINOIS DEFENSE

The question on everyone’s mind is what exactly to expect from the quarterback room on Saturday. Sean Clifford was in full pads and throwing at practice on Wednesday, but is very likely out with the hope he will be able to suit up against Ohio State next week. Tre Roberson is the back-up, who struggled during his first meaningful playing time during the loss at Iowa. An extra week of first-team reps and playing in the friendly confides of Beaver Stadium will help assess in Roberson can take the next step. We may also see true freshman Christian Veilleux, a three-star prospect who would be seeing his first snaps at the collegiate level. Clifford will certainly be missed on the field. We won’t know how much until Saturday afternoon.

If you’re looking for a strength on the Illinois team, the defensive line is probably the best bet. They do a good job of disrupting plays, which will cause some initial headaches and adjustments to overcome, especially with an inexperienced quarterback under center. Owen Carney Jr. has come on especially strong as of late, with 4.5 sacks in the last five games. However, Illinois does a good job of getting pressure throughout the defense, as 12 members of the defense have at least 1.5 TFLs on the season.

It would be wise to avoid safety Kerby Joseph as much as possible without Clifford in the lineup. Joseph already has three interceptions, three fumble recoveries and a safety, in addition to being fifth on the team in tackles. He can make the type of momentum-shifting plays that could be pivotal if this turns out to be a low-scoring affair.

Penn State may look to rely more on its veteran backfield of Noah Cain, John Lovett (if available) and Keyvone Lee, although the running game has struggled at times - especially on obvious running downs. Depending on what we see from the quarterback, expect a heavy dose of screens and a short passing game to get the ball in the hands of Jahan Dotson, Parker Washington, KeAndre Lambert-Smith, and even more Dotson.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Illini kicker James McCourt is 8-of-12 on field goal attempts, although three of the misses came from 50 yards or more. His long on the season is 53 yards. As is common in the Big Ten, Illinois has a standout punter in Blake Hayes. The senior Aussie-style punter is averaging 45.5 yards per attempt, with a long of 80 (yes, 80) yards. Of his 39 punts, 18 have landed inside of the 20 and 10 have been 50 yards or more.

Wide receiver Donny Navarro III handles return duties for Illinois, averaging 16.3 yards on kickoffs 5.7 yards per punt. He has yet to reach the end zone this season.

There isn’t much new for Penn State’s special teams, although this could be a great game for the return units to finally break one as it seems like they’ve been close to doing all season.

PREDICTION

Penn State-20, Illinois-6

The match-up between Penn State’s defense and the Illinois offense will be wildly in favor of the Nittany Lions. The Illini passing game leaves much to desire, and Penn State will look to shut it down from the start between their pass rush and paying close attention to the Illini’s favorite target in Isiah Williams. Once they are able to make the Illini attack one-sided, the Nittany Lions should have no problem stuffing the run game.

It’s much harder to predict what will occur once Penn State has the ball though. I’m not expecting fireworks without Clifford, but general competence with the extra week and first-team reps for the backups. Penn State should be in great shape if the offense can put together two touchdown drives and two field goals. However, I don’t see them covering the spread without a special teams or defensive touchdown.

Keyvonne Lee is the offensive MVP with 80 rushing yards and a score, while Jahan Dotson weaves his way through the defense for the other. Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks ball out against the Illini run game, each collecting 10 tackles and two TFLs.

Let’s do this.