Despite the shudders I get when thinking about Penn State’s last game against Illinois, I see Saturday morning’s contest going quite differently. For starters, this is not the same Fighting Illini team from 2022. A two-point victory over Toledo and a two-possession defeat to Kansas certainly don’t scream Big Ten contender, and the Nittany Lions will have their way with Bret Bielema’s group from the get-go. Will an early kick at a sleepy stadium make for some weird vibes early? Potentially. But that shouldn’t matter with a talented quarterback, a dominant defense, and two proven studs in the backfield.
Take Penn State to cover the spread, even with a garbage time touchdown from Illinois.
Penn State 38, Illinois 17
This game had me worried to start the season, as the Illini looked like the team to beat in the West last year, and had Michigan on the ropes until a flurry of late field goals lifted the Wolverines to the win. But that team lost quite a bit of production, and has been on the struggle bus this year - first, struggling to beat Toledo, and then getting spanked by Kansas. Penn State, meanwhile, has picked up where it left off last year, and may actually be a bit better on the offensive side of the ball. All of that to say that a road game against a Big Ten foe can never be taken lightly, but the teams appear to be trending in opposite directions. The Lions continue their style of play, with a suffocating defense complementing a potent offense, and Penn State pulls away in the second half to secure the win.
Penn State 35, Illinois 14
Here’s a fun stat for you all. Since the beginning of the 2017 season, Penn State is 23-1 in August and September games - and that includes being unbeaten on the road in those games. I think there are fits and starts. While Illinois has been struggling to open this season, especially on defense, I think they’ll put up a solid fight against Penn State and that defensive front still presents issues. In the end though, I like Penn State to ease away in the second half. I also believe Penn State will strike for at least one 50+ yard touchdown.
Penn State 27, Illinois 14
Time to finally exorcise those Covid-spawned demons, right? The 2021 Illinois game felt like rock bottom for Penn State’s program and, although players are claiming the last matchup between these two teams isn’t in the back of their heads, it’s hard to forget a game with the most overtimes in college football history. This 2023 Penn State team is different. Illinois is allowing 477 yards per game — and it’s played Toledo and Kansas. That’s 113th out of 133 FBS teams. That should be enough to give Drew Allar & Co. a comfortable margin.
Penn State 34, Illinois 17
Like many, I was initially scared of the Illini defense, but through two games, they haven’t looked like world-beaters. This game will be competitive initially, but the Nittany Lions should wear down the home team in the second half, with Drew Allar having a multi-touchdown game.
Penn State 35, Illinois 17
This is a game I was much more nervous about heading into the season. Honestly, I thought going to Illinois was going to be Penn State’s third toughest game of the season outside Ohio State and Michigan. While I still think this game will be more frustrating than expected, this game doesn’t have the level of fear factor that it once did. Flat out, the Illini just aren’t the same level of team they were last season. The offense misses the punch of Chase Brown, while the defense isn’t near the elite level it was just a year ago.
Penn State 30, Illinois 17
Remember just a few short weeks ago when PSU fans were calling this the toughest game on the schedule after Michigan and Ohio State? Pepperidge Farm remembers*
Illinois’ offense consists of Luke Altmyer and Isaiah Williams. Look for Manny Diaz to dial up all sorts of exotic looks and pressures while keeping a spy on Altmyer to make sure he doesn’t run hog wild via scrambles out of the pocket. Chase Brown ain’t walking through that door with regards to the run game, so don’t be surprised to see some jet sweeps or other creative ways to get the ball in Williams’ hands.
Defensively, despite having a game-wrecker in Jer’Zahn Newton, the Illini are a hot mess, especially in the secondary. Look for Drew Allar to carve them up like a Thanksgiving turkey and for a healthy dose of the law firm of Singleton & Allen on the ground. Yes, Illinois will put up some points, but they will only be able to keep pace for so long.
The score may very well be close at halftime, but the Nittany Lions pull away in the second half as the offense continues to do its thing while an Illinois squad that finds itself playing further from behind creates opportunities for the PSU D to get themselves a touchdown for the second week in a row. These two teams are a far cry from their 2021 selves, and that greatly benefits PSU. If PSU is truly a team capable of winning the B1G East and/or breaking into the CFP, this is the type of game they should be able to take care of business in.
Penn State 45, Illinois 17
* Please note that Pepperidge Farm is not sponsoring this prediction
Conference openers are always tricky, but I’m not too worried about this one. Illinois is clearly not the same team they were a year ago. I watched their game against Kansas and their defense looked like a shell of itself. The run defense is among the worst in the country through 2 games- a perfect opportunity for Singleton and Allen to break the explosive plays we’ve all been waiting for.
On defense, Penn State should be mostly okay, although Luke Altmeyer and the Illinois offense are more than capable of putting together some solid drives. This has the feel of last year’s Auburn game, where we finally got to see what Diaz’ defense could be.
Penn State 45, Illinois 20
(Originally appearing in the Big Ten Preview)
Four things you need to know about this game:
- The Big Ten West does not care about non-conference games. They effectively use them as their pre-season, and would happily give up a win there if it means gaining one in conference play. So if they lose a game or two, so be it. Case in point, Northwestern went 0-3 in the non-conference in 2018 and still won the West. So, don’t look at the Kansas and Toledo results to try and determine what will happen in this game.
- Illinois was dead in the water two years ago, then they changed their offensive philosophy “overnight” right before the Penn State game, and, well, you know the rest. Expect some wrinkles we haven’t seen yet.
- Drew Allar is doing a lot better than we expected through two games, but this will be his first road game, against a conference opponent, who, as mentioned in 1 above, will happily go 0-3 in non-conference play if it means beating a top team in the East.
- James Franklin does not forget.
Penn State 56, Illinois 17
(Originally appearing in the Game Preview)
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.
Penn State 35, Illinois 14