Penn State hits the road for the first time in 2023 to face Illinois in the Big Ten opener.
(#7)Penn State (2-0) vs. Illinois (1-1)
Kickoff: Noon, Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL
TV: FOX, Noon - Gus Johnson (play-by-play), Joel Klatt (analyst), Jenny Taft (sideline)
Weather: A cloudy but otherwise pleasant day is expecting with a high of 75 and very little chance of rain.
PENN STATE RECORD: 80-36, 10th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 104-51, 13th Year
VS. ILLINOIS: 3-2
ILLINOIS RECORD: 14-13, 3rd Year
OVERALL RECORD: 111-71, 16th Year
VS. PENN STATE: 3-3
This will be the 27th meeting between Penn State and Illinois, with the Nittany Lions holding a 20-6 advantage in the series...Penn State will have its Big Ten opener on the road for the eighth consecutive year, and 13 of the last 14 years...the Nittany Lions will look to extend their streak of scoring 30 or more points in the last nine games, which currently leads the nation...Penn State also leads the nation with 10 consecutive games with at least 6 tackles for loss...Penn State is 6-2 all-time in games played on September 16...the first game played on that date was a 23-0 victory over Lebanon Valley in 1905...the most recent game played on this date was also a shutout, as the Nittany Lions steamrolled Georgia State 56-0 in 2017.
ILLINOIS OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
Quarterback Luke Altmyer has brought some much-needed steadiness under center for Illinois, which has struggled to produce many quarterbacks of quality in recent years. Altmyer has completed just under 70 percent of his passes after two games where he threw for over 200 yards in each contest. He’s also contributed 70 yards with his legs in each game, to lead the team in rushing yards after two weeks.
Penn State’s defense will have opportunities against the relatively inexperienced Altmyer, who left Ole Miss for the Big Ten. Altmyer has already been sacked eight times on the season and tossed three interceptions, two of which helped Kansas build an early lead against Illinois on Friday. The Nittany Lions opportunistic defense will be looking to keep pressure on him as the Illinois offense has failed to produce on the ground thus far with star running back Chase Brown off to the NFL.
Following Altmyer, Reggie Love III and Josh McCray have shared the load, with Love finding more success with a 5.4 yard per carry average. However, it should be noted the Illinois has played from behind for much of the first two weeks.
Junior receiver Isiah Williams is the most dangerous playmaker on the Illinois offense, and can strike fast with any lapses by the defense. Illinois will be depending on a big game out of Williams to keep pace with the Nittany Lions offense.
PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. ILLINOIS DEFENSE
Illinois’ defense was one of the stingiest in the nation last season, nearly propelling them to a Big Ten West Division title. However, the defense seems to be taking a step back with many of their key players moving on to the NFL. They’ve struggled to defend both the pass and run games in their two games thus far against Toledo and Kansas, surrendering 253.5 yards through the air and 224 yards rushing per game. For context, Illinois allowed just 273 total yards per game in 2022.
While the Illinois defense is off to a rocky start compared to the high level of play a season ago, they are far from a lost cause. Bret Bielema has a history of quickly building strong defenses, and could see a sharp turnaround as the season progresses.
It all starts in the trenches for Bielema, where you will find Illinois’ best overall player. Defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton is well on his way to a long NFL career and is one of the hardest players to block in college football. Newton is a wildly athletic 300-pound tackle who can easily get to the backfield and end plays before they begin. Illinois will be looking for a big game from him to get the Penn State offense out of whack.
Safety Miles Scott has become the playmaker in the secondary, taking over for Devon Witherspoon who was the fifth overall player selected in the 2023 NFL Draft. Scott had a momentum-shifting pick-six that jump started Illinois comeback victory against Toledo after falling behind 19-7 in the third quarter. Scott also has a team-leading 13 tackles and two pass breakups after two weeks.
This will be the first road contest for Drew Allar as Penn State’s starting quarterback, who has been nothing short of spectacular in his first two games as QB1. Allar has shown tremendous poise as he somehow appears simultaneously laser-focused and like he just woke up from a nap at the same time. This will be a great challenge to see how he responds outside of Beaver Stadium against a defense that will have a few tricks up its sleeve.
Illinois kicker Caleb Griffin is 16-of-21 in his three seasons with the team, with a career long of 52 yards. He has four touchbacks in 10 kickoffs this season, meaning Nicholas Singleton should get a crack at a return or two. Punter Hugh Robertson is averaging 42.6 yards per attempt, and has placed five of his seven attempts inside the 20.
Penn State did not attempt a field goal against Delaware after going one of three in week one. Alex Felkins, who connected on a short field goal against West Virginia after Sander Sahaydak missed both of his attempts in the first half, was the choice for Penn State’s eight extra point attempts before Sahaydak made an appearance for the final point after.
Penn State-35, Illinois-14
I had major concerns about this game heading into the season. The first road game for a new starting quarterback against last year’s leader in total defense seemed like a tricky situation. However, after seeing the difference in these teams during the first two weeks has me singing a much more optimistic tune.
The Illinois defense should improve over the season, but they are clearly missing the key members who have moved on to the NFL. Penn State’s offense won’t roll over them, but should have the efficiency to methodically build a lead throughout the afternoon. And while the Illinois offense is experiencing a boost at quarterback, they have not yet found the balance to keep the defense on its toes. Illinois makes things interesting for most of the first half before the Nittany Lions make adjustments to pull ahead for a comfortable victory to start off Big Ten play.