After a disappointing home loss to Iowa, the Illinois Fighting Illini are back it at this week as they're preparing to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions. At 4-6, it looks like the Illini will need to win their last two games in order to save Tim Beckman's job. Let's give a warm welcome to Devon Edwards of Black Shoe Diaries as he joins us to answer our questions.
1. This is the first year of the James Franklin era at Penn State and the team currently sits at (6-4, 2-4). The Nittany Lions are now bowl-eligible after the NCAA lifted their postseason ban earlier in the year; what's the mood like in Happy Valley?
It's been an absolute roller coaster of a year for the Penn State fanbase. When we jumped out to a 3-0 start, then had the sanctions removed, then beat Rutgers at Rutgers in a game they were touting as the biggest in program history, we were pretty jubilated--the team might not have been playing particularly well, but they were winning, and some analysts even called Penn State a dark horse contender for the Big Ten title. Then we lost our next four games--with particularly uninspiring failures against Northwestern, Michigan, and Maryland sandwiching around a moral victory (a double OT loss) to Ohio State--and the message boards started to do what message boards do. And pretty much everyone wanted to fire our offensive coordinator. But after a squeaker over Indiana and one of the best performances of the year against Temple last week, the fact that Penn State's clinched a bowl berth has overshadowed some of the frustrations. A 7-5 season would be mostly in line with what most predicted before the season, so it's hard to complain too much.
2. Christian Hackenberg is one of the best Quarterbacks in the Big Ten, but the offensive line has given him zero protection this year and some inconsistent play has resulted. What type of game do you think he'll have this weekend?
Hack's been so up-and-down this year, and it's as much the offensive line as it is a litany of other factors: the graduation of his do-everything target Allen Robinson, the loss of Bill O'Brien and Charlie Fisher, the fact that OC John Donovan would obviously prefer a more mobile quarterback and hasn't tailored his system to fit the pocket-passer he does have, and yes, the failure of Penn State's line to establish any ground game whatsoever. Now, some of these are more legitimate than others: the receivers have been perfectly cromulent when Hack's had the time to throw to them, and the run game and protection have started to turn around with the return of all-Big Ten guard Miles Dieffenbach from an injury that cost him the first eight games. All that notwithstanding, Hack's still been pretty awful, by his standards: missing open receivers, making bad reads, taking sacks instead of throwing the ball away, making horrible decisions while under pressure to throw the ball across his body into coverage. He's regressed from last year, in no small part because of the lack of BOB's tutelage, and it's showed in his body language. What's he going to do Saturday? Man, if he can complete 60% of his passes, get rid of the ball when he's under pressure, and not throw a terrible interception, I'd be thrilled. How sad is that?
3. Who are Penn State's other weapons on offense?
First, after the injury to Zach Zwinak, Penn State's left with two running backs who will split the carries--Akeel Lynch is the more decisive runner, but Bill Belton is a prototypical third-down back, a solid blocker and receiver. At wide receiver, DaeSean Hamilton is a possession receiver--look for him in the screen game, which Penn State will run until an Illinois defender picks one off. Geno Lewis is more of a deep threat who's seen his usage decrease over the course of the season as he battles some unspecified off-field issues. Lastly, Penn State's blessed with incredible depth at tight end--Jesse James is a 6'7 monster who will drop a few balls too many but make an impact in the red zone; Kyle Carter and Mike Gesicki are both smaller, quicker matchup problems who haven't been used nearly enough.
4. Do the Nittany Lions have any players on the defensive side that Illini fans should worry about?
I know it sounds like I'm being cheeky here, but Illini fans should worry about pretty much every player on Penn State's crazy-good defense (3rd nationally in yards, 4th in scoring). That's not only because a number of them are pretty spectacular, but because Bob Shoop has a bit of Rex Ryan in him, and loves to bring pressure from every level. You will see defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs getting into the backfield and making plays, if not sacks, of Wes Lunt. The headliners on the D are Anthony Zettel and Mike Hull, who are among the best defensive players in the Big Ten and the country--Zettel's an undersized but insanely athletic (2 picks this year! One was a pick-six!) and disruptive defensive tackle, Mike Hull is a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine who follows in the legacy as Linebacker U's latest standout. Both of them have been able to excel because nosetackle Austin Johnson does such a good job eating space in the middle. Cornerback Jordan Lucas was burned for a long touchdown last week, but has anchored a very solid secondary, along with safeties Adrian Amos and true freshman Marcus Allen, one of three true freshmen who will see time in the defensive backfield for Penn State. Also, keep an eye out for defensive end Deion Barnes, who's had a resurgent junior year bringing pressure off the edge.
5. What's your opinion of Illinois heading into this game? What do the Illini need to do in order to win this game?
From the outside looking in, Illinois' best chance to win is to hope that this is another slopfest like the Maryland and Indiana games. This Penn State defense is dominant, but when we've had trouble, it's been because the offensive is alternating three-and-outs with turnovers. I don't doubt that Illinois will have difficulties maintaining long, scoring drives--hell, Ohio State couldn't even do that--but given a short field, and little rest, even the best defenses fold sometimes. That said, Illinois' best bet is getting the ball out quickly to Dudek. Though Penn State did a good job bottling up Stefon Diggs in the Maryland game, high-percentage throws like that are a good way of minimizing the pressure that Penn State will bring on almost every drop-back. Also if the Illini can prove that Penn State's success on the ground last week was a fluke, and force Christian Hackenberg into making mistakes (or maybe just sit back and watch him make them all on his own), we could be in for a long, ugly affair. If Illinois wins, it'll be something like a 13-10 final that makes us all regret wasting our Saturday afternoon watching it.
6. What's your prediction for Saturday's matchup?
Honestly, I think Penn State's offensive line improvements the last couple weeks have been for real. The reality of a competent ground game is something we simply didn't have for the first eight weeks of the season, and that as much as anything pushed back Christian Hackenberg's development to this point. I think Penn State will make an effort to slow this game down, to grind out long, methodical drives, and dare the Illini to match. It won't be that seamless--it never is--but that simply wasn't an option for most of the year. If Penn State can avoid crippling turnovers, I think they should be able to pull away. But it's never that easy. I'll say 20-13, with Hackenberg continuing his maddening season but getting bailed out by a defense that's forced almost three turnovers a game in the past month.
Thank you to Devon for taking the time to answer our questions! Make sure to check out Black Shoe Diaries for more coverage as we approach Saturday's game.