Illinois (3-4, 0-3) at Penn State (4-3, 1-2)
Time: 11am Central
TV: ESPN (Pam Ward, Joey Galloway, Paul Carcaterra)
Line: Penn State -10.5
Forecast: 51 degrees, partly cloudy, 10% chance of rain, 10mph winds
Enemy Territory: Black Shoe Diaries
THESE FOUR THINGS
1. Survive The Opening Salvo. If we're being honest, this is probably the worst week for the Illini to be heading to Happy Valley to take on Penn State. The last we saw our Illini they were getting destroyed by Michigan State in the second half. It was the worst this team looked this season, and it will be interesting to see how this team responds to it.
Further complicating matters is that we're now going on the road to face a team that hates us. You may think that the anger over Illini coaches showing up on Penn State's campus last season has dissipated, but not as much as you'd think. Tim Beckman is still very much hated by Penn State fans, and as we saw last season, this is a game that Penn State is really looking forward to. Oh, and the fact that Penn State lost 63-14 last week won't help matters, either. This is a team that is looking for somebody to take it out on, and there's no team in the Big Ten they'd love to take it out on more than the Illini.
And that's why I'm worried. I have no doubt in my mind that Penn State is going to come out strong from the opening kick tomorrow, and I don't know how the Illini will handle it. If Penn State jumps out to a 14-0 lead will the Illini lose all confidence and take a beating, or will they fight back?
So no matter how this game turns out, I think it will be decided in the first quarter. The Illini will either respond and play a full 60 minutes against a team that can be beaten, or they'll get blown out again and things will only get worse from there.
2. Spread The Penn State Defense Out. Much like the Illini, Penn State has issues in its secondary. It may not seem that way if you look at the stats, but that's because, unlike the Illini, Penn State actually has a pass rush to help out. But there really isn't a corner or safety on their defense you need to fear. So without Ryan Lankford available as a deep threat, Nathan Scheelhaase and the offense will need to be patient, but this is a defense you can move down the field against with the short passing game. It's also a defense the Illini can take advantage of using their tight ends up the seams.
Spreading the Nittany Lions out with multiple receiver formations will likely help the Illini run the ball as well. DaQuan Jones is great at taking on blockers and creating chaos against the run, but if you spread Penn State out it'll be much easier for Illini running backs to find a hole. If not we can probably expect a whole lot of one and two yard gains like we saw against Michigan State last week.
3. Mix Up The Defense. Now, while I'd be thrilled if the Illini mixed up their defense by suddenly learning how to tackle, what I actually mean is mix up the looks we give quarterback Christian Hackenberg. So far this season Hackenberg has shown flashes of the ability that made him a five-star quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class, but he's also had plenty of moments where he looks every bit the true freshman quarterback.
Do not make life easy on him. Since we don't have a pass rush we can rely on, we can at least try to confuse Vandenberg at the line and bait him into making mistakes.
Of course, with so much youth of our own on defense, I'm not sure how much the coaching staff can really do in this department. V'Angelo Bentley is listed as questionable on the depth chart this week, and I'm not confident he's going to play. Which means we're going to have a lot of freshmen in the secondary again this week, and with Allen Robinson lining up at receiver for the Nittany Lions, that concerns me. Their job will be tough enough already, giving them even more to think and worry about could prove to be disastrous.
But I'd at least like to see us try it, because it's pretty obvious to all involved that what the Illini have been doing hasn't been working.
4. Please, For The Love Of God, Win The Turnover Battle. On the season the Illini have a turnover margin of -5, as they've caused a league-low six turnovers. The fact is that only three Big Ten teams (Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan State) have turned the ball over less than the 11 times we have, but it's our inability to force our opponent to do so that has been a big drag on this team.
Well, there's some good news. While there's only one Big Ten team who has a worse turnover margin than we do on the season, that team happens to be Penn State at -7. It's part of that whole freshman quarterback stuff I mentioned earlier. Penn State's defense has forced only 9 turnovers on the season, but they've coughed up the ball via fumble or interception 16 times. That's more than two a game.
However, it should be pointed out that it's not strictly Hackenberg turning the ball over. He has thrown eight interceptions, but Penn State has also fumbled the ball eight times. So even if the Great Interception Drought continues for the Illini secondary this week, knocking the ball loose is certainly an option for everybody on the defense.
I know this Penn State team isn't the same Penn State team we're used to seeing, but it's still very tough to beat them at their own place. For the Illini it will be damn near impossible if they don't force some turnovers and take care of the ball themselves.
Fornelli: I do believe that this Illinois team is going to pick itself up off the mat and play a much better game this week, because Big Ten losing streak or not, this team is still alive in its hunt for bowl eligibility. However, that doesn't mean I think we're going to win this game. As I mentioned at the start, this is a Penn State team coming off a big loss facing a team that it's been waiting to host at Beaver Stadium for over a year now. Without a bowl game or division title to play for this season, this game sets up at Penn State's Super Bowl right now. The Illini will hang tough, but Penn State will just have too much in the end. Penn State 34-20 (5-2 on the season).
Primiano: I really, really want to pick Illinois to win. Penn State is not very good and this should be a winnable game. But last week has tempered my enthusiasm. This will be a much better game than that one, but still a loss. Penn State 35-28 (5-2 on the season).
Birkhead: After last week, Penn State should be very motivated to win this game. Illinois will have a hard time going into Happy Valley, which is always one of the toughest road environments. Illinois should perform much better than they did last weekend, but I still can't see them pulling this one off. Penn State 27-20 (5-2 on the season).
Cassidy: Tailspin. It's over. Illinois football's stretch run, same story year after year. Loss, loss, loss. Then another loss. Penn State 31-13 (4-3 on the season).