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Illinois Football Week 13 Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

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Illinois will fight, but it's hard to imagine a victory against Penn State this weekend.

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

THE WHEN AND WHERE

Game: Penn State Nittany Lions (-6.5) vs. Illinois Fighting Illini

Time: 11:00 AM Central Time - Saturday, November 22nd

Place: Memorial Stadium - Champaign, Illinois

TV: ESPN2 - The soothing sounds o--oh god damnit it's Matt Millen.

THE UNIFORMS

For the fifth time this season, the Illini will wear what has become their de facto home uniform.

THE GAME POSTER

Have you ever played Megaman? Well here's a disgustingly cool illustration from Aaron Rench's article yesterday about the two quarterbacks taking the field tomorrow.

Lunt vs. Hackenberg

THE INJURY REPORT

#28 Jaylen Dunlap - Out
#34 Mike Svetina - Out
#64 Steve Dumezich - Out
#6 Carroll Phillips - Out for Season
#35 Sean White - Out for Season
#58 Kenny Nelson - Out for Season
#66 Scott McDowell - Out for Season
#69 Ted Karras - Out for Season
#68 Simon Cvijanovic - Out for Season
#93 Teko Powell - Out for Season

WELP. Simon Cvijanovic is now officially out for the rest of the season, ending his Fighting Illini career. That's just about the worst way to go out for a man who's been a solid left tackle for the past two years. Ted Karras is out again as we covered last week, Jaylen Dunlap continues his season of mysterious death, and Mike Svetina has yet to return from the injury he sustained in the offseason.

THE THEM

THE OFFENSE

Illinois is not the only offense in the Big Ten who relies on an nearly immobile pocket passer with a cannon arm, questionable accuracy, and unquestionable inconsistency. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg comes into Saturday's game averaging 1.4 impossible throws per game and also 1.4 (!) interceptions per game.

Hackenberg has had a worrisome sophomore year after tearing up the Big Ten last season to the tune of nearly 3,000 yards and a two-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio. That ratio has been replaced in 2014 by its reciprocal: Hackenberg has thrown just seven touchdowns and 14 interceptions this season. There are myriad reasonable explanations for his decline in play, of which I'll list a mere few:

  • Head coach and potential wizard Bill O'Brien was replaced by good head coach but non-wizard James Franklin.
  • Penn State's solid offensive line was replaced by four origami swans and a talented but injured guard (Miles Dieffenbach).
  • Unstoppable catching god Allen Robinson mercifully graduated and now does his thing with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Hackenberg can no longer throw a ball haphazardly to the sideline and fully expect to gain 45 yards.
  • Penn State hasn't played against Illinois' pass defense yet.

Hackenberg hasn't been great, or even good, but the above factors have a lot to do with his second year shortcomings. He'll probably go on to be the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2015 and get drafted in the first round. The kid is gonna be a millionaire in two years; he'll be just fine.

Aside from Hackenberg, the Penn State offense has sub-par talent at best, given their program's expectations. Pesky senior running back Zach Zwinak recently suffered a season and career-ending injury against Ohio State. He will live on forever in my heart as the best non-"impact player" running back in the history of the NCAA Football video game franchise. Seriously-- I'm pretty sure I lost every game I played against Penn State because he consistently ran for 150 yards and converted every single short yardage situation.

Replacing Zwinak in the backfield are Bill Belton and Akeem Lynch. Neither is going to do too much on Saturday, as evidenced by Penn State's average of 2.9 yards per carry this season. Somehow, someway, a team managed to have a worse running game than the Illini. Miracles happen every (Satur)day, kids. Belton is more of a pass catching and blocking type, while Lynch is trusted a bit more from down to down. Expect these two to split snaps fairly equally. Luckily for Penn State, this is the Illini defense we're talking about! You, yes even you Bill Belton and/or Akeem Lynch, will manage to run for over 100 yards on Saturday.

When Hackenberg manages to get a throw away from behind PSU's shaky (but improving, slightly) offensive line, the ball is likely headed towards DaeSean Hamilton. Hamilton is the Allen Robinson placement that Hackenberg needs, but not the one he deserves. Okay, he probably deserves a little help. Here's more on Hamilton and the other PSU receivers from Devon Edwards of Black Shoe Diaries:

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.

The key match-up for the Illini defense is the athletic but undisciplined line from Champaign going up against the weak line of Penn State. It's hard to overstate how much the OL has cost Penn State this year-- without their struggles Penn State would have at least two more wins. Illinois will be pinning their ears back and going after Hackenberg. I'm hoping to see Tim Banks bring more blitzes than he has in recent weeks. At this point, the team and coaching staff have nothing to lose. Being aggressive could help force a heaping helping of useful turnovers against a quarterback who has been prone to accidental charity.

THE DEFENSE

Oh boy. Penn State's defense is the rare elite unit that's actually fun to watch. Kirby Smart's Alabama squad just grinds teams to death with lock-down coverage and incredibly talented players from top to bottom. Stanford's defense bores teams for all eternity with disciplined linebacker play and outstanding fundamentals. Bob Shoop's Penn State defense combines talent, discipline, and (here's the kicker) aggressiveness to destroy the souls of helpless fans. It may be wise to get #PrayForWes trending before the game even starts.

Penn State's defense is tied with Stanford for second-best in the country, allowing just 4.11 yards per play (Wisconsin is ranked first, 4.09 YPP). For reference, Illinois ranks 110th and allows 6.29 yards per play. Perhaps the scariest thing about Penn State's defense is that they're still improving:

Penn State D by the Month August/September October November
Yards Per Play Allowed 4.51 4.13 3.42

Some of that is purely based on opposition: the three games Penn State has played in November were against the anemic offenses of Indiana, Temple, and recently struggling Maryland (who actually won that game!). Regardless, Illinois has a lot to fear this Saturday, especially with the current patchwork offensive line.

The best player on Penn State's defense is middle linebacker Mike Hull. Hull is outrageously good at footballing. He's a tackle machine who works best when asked to stop the run. Hull will be all over the field and you can expect to be annoyed with how often Gene Honda calls his name during the game. The next-best player is Anthony Zettel, just another excellent space taker-upper and play-making defensive tackle to add to the list of Illini opponent's this year.

For some quality information on the men who will be covering Dudek and Geronimo, here's Devon Edwards with more on Penn State's secondary:

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.

One thing clearly helping PSU's secondary is how much pressure the team is able to create on quarterbacks. If the Illini can hold off the blitzers for more than a few seconds, there should be some openings downfield for Wes Lunt to show off his arm. This is unlikely, but even doing so for one or two plays could swing the outcome of the game. Penn State has yet to face an opponent with the passing talents of Wes Lunt's Illini offense.

THE FIVE KE--THE RANT

In lieu of the Five Key Points, this week you'll have the pleasure of reading a rant about the Illini offense. I didn't expect to do this, but it just sorta happened while I was writing the end of the previous section. Enjoy.

Here's a Public Service Announcement meant for one person and one person only: Bill Cubit. As any good self-respecting blogger does, I am ethically required to begin the following paragraph with "I'm no football expert, but...".

I'm no football expert, but I am tired as hell of seeing Illinois trot out Jon Davis, Matt LaCosse, and Donovonn Young for a tight I-formation party on every other first-and-ten. At some point, Cubit has to acknowledge that this team doesn't have the necessary girth to go full GERG Davis and run the ball from under center on both first and second down. That results in third-and-long roughly 80 percent of the time, which means Wes Lunt will be getting his head taken off on almost every possession, which means we have to watch Reilly O'Toole run like a chicken turkey with its head cut off against Northwestern next weekend.

I won't drop to my knees and beg (yet), but Illinois does not have to drop into the I just because every other archaic B1G team is trying to do it. This is the 21st century, on a team with a 21st century running back and receiving corps. Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse should have been running free from the slot all season. Josh Ferguson should be receiving hand-offs against opposing Nickel and Dime formations, not base 4-3 defenses. I want to see four talented wide receivers spread wide, running four verticals and breaking off their routes into open zones.

I know that's too big a change to ask for when the offense has been what it has been all year long. There is serious potential for this Illinois team to have a top 50 offensive unit, with or without a mobile quarterback that fans seem to crave so badly. The air raid style attack was the only thing that moved the ball against Iowa last week and this game is going to be a similar offensive struggle. For God's sake, please run Illinois' best formations against the best defense in the Big Ten. Simple steps for (relative) success:

  1. Shotgun, Wes Lunt's stated preference and the team's best formational option.
  2. Josh Ferguson to the man's right or left.
  3. Geronimo Allison and Marstin Barrdee on the outside, Mike "White Lightning" Dude K and Mon LaDavis in the slots.
  4. ???
  5. Profit.

THE PREDICTION

I'm masochistically excited for this game. Penn State has been a decent team all year, but their offense is quite possibly bad enough that even the Illini can stop them. I want to see Tim Beckman set himself up for a dramatic finish against Northwestern (which I will be attending, most likely). I want to see the seniors go into their last home game and come out with a hard-earned victory. I want to see Wes Lunt, soaked in rain and perhaps tears, carried off the field after a breakout performance. I would love for all of that to happen, but I'm not going to predict it in this column. Penn State is too strong.

Penn State Nittany Lions 23, Illinois Fighting Illini 13

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