Remember last season when Illinois won their last two games to become bowl eligible? Penn State was one of those wins, and they'll be looking for revenge on Saturday. Bill DiFilippo from Black Shoe Diaries has stopped by to help preview the matchup against the Nittany Lions. Let's give him a warm welcome!
1. Penn State (6-2) is already bowl eligible thanks in part to an early five-game winning streak. However, the Nittany Lions face a tough schedule going forward, with contests against Illinois, Northwestern, Michigan, and Michigan State. What are your expectations for this last month of the regular season?
It's tough to say. I think every Penn State fan's general expectation is 2-2 with wins over the Illinois teams and losses to the Michigan teams, but crazier things have certainly happened. The wild card, at least with regards to the next two weeks, is how gassed the team could be. Penn State's season began with 10 straight games, and the final two are against the Illini and the Wildcats. Could the Nittany Lions come out a bit flat? Certainly.
If there is any consolation, it's that the two Michigan games come after a bye, the game against the Wolverines is at home, and the game against Michigan State has "letdown game" written all over it for the Spartans (it's the week after MSU plays Ohio State in Columbus). Really, outside of going winless, nothing over this four game stretch would shock me. Going 4-0 would be swell. I am of the belief that Penn State should do that, but I am open to hearing other points of view.
2. Penn State has struggled at times under James Franklin, but the program has certainly showed some signs of recovery. What's your opinion of the second year head coach so far? Is he meeting expectations?
These questions has a different answer based on who you ask. I tend to think he's doing a fine job, and while I would like to see the team look better consistently, I don't know how much of that is on him, how much is on his assistant coaches (who he is famous for delegating things to), and how much is on players for not executing when they need to. So it's somewhat complex and really tough to give a straight answer.
On the whole, I can't complain too much. The team is winning, Franklin is recruiting like a mad man, and outside of a few changes I want the team to make during the offseason, it's been mostly good during the Franklin era. I think.
3. How does Penn State's offense look this year? Who are the playmakers to look out for?
The big names are Christian Hackenberg, Saquon Barkley, and Chris Godwin. We'll get to Hackenberg a bit more in a sec, but when he's on his game - which happens, it just usually takes some time for him to warm up - he's outstanding. Consistency is a big, big issue, though.
Barkley is a true freshman who looks like he may be the most well-rounded running back in the Big Ten. Watching him run is a treat, especially because his vision is analogous to that of a senior. If you give him a cutback lane, he is going to find it, and he is going to hit it, and he is going to run for a long time. He's also amazing at the little nuances of playing running back, as his stiff arm, spin move, and hurdle are all otherworldly. Maryland straight up played a bunch of Cover-0 coverage last week and threw everyone in the box because they were terrified of him.
Godwin looks like the second coming of Anquan Boldin. He's a tallish guy (6-foot-1) whose best assets are his physicality and his ability to win 50/50 balls. He's not the fastest guy in the world, but he is fast enough. If a ball is thrown in his vicinity, and he is draped by a defender, odds are he is going to come down with it. He's so much fun to watch.
4. What about the defense?
The line is as good as any group in the country. Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson were expected to be the stars of this unit, and while they are good, Carl Nassib has been a superdupermegastar. He also used to be a walk-on. I say this so I can warn you that this will be repeated a lot on Saturday by the broadcast team.
The linebackers are up and down. Brandon Bell is outstanding, but Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder were thrown into roles they were a little too green for. Don't get me wrong, they're both solid, but once starting middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White went down with a season-ending injury, Cabinda had to slide to MLB from OLB, and Reeder had to take his place. They've both struggled at times, but for the most part, they've been ok.
The secondary has improved a ton over the course of the year. Jordan Lucas and Marcus Allen are both big play threats at safety, although they do sometimes have issues wrapping people up when they tackle. Trevor Williams is a pretty good cornerback, as are the other two guys who get most of the snaps at the position: sophomore Grant Haley and true freshman John Reid. Haley is undersized but fearless, while Reid looks like he can be an All-Big Ten guy somewhere down the road.
On the whole, it's a good unit. Probably a little worse than last year's defense, but it's not bad by any stretch of the imagination. Its biggest issue is it struggles with running quarterbacks, so I'm thanking the good Lord that it gets to face a pocket passer in Wes Lunt this week.
5. What's your opinion of Illinois heading into this game? Do you envision the Illini giving the Nittany Lions much trouble on either side of the ball?
Well now that Tim Beckman's gone, I don't mind Illinois nearly as much as I used to. I straight up hated that dude, so now that he's gone, all is forgiven. Also: Dee Brown was dope as hell.
I'm not too worried about the Illini offense, at least as not as much as I probably should be. No Mike Dudek and (probably) no Josh Ferguson means the game will mostly be decided by Lunt's arm, and while I like him, I feel comfortable going up against any pro style passer, especially when I'm not too worried about the running game or receivers (having said that, I do like Geronimo Allison).
The Illini defense does scare me a little, although considering the success that teams like Iowa and Wisconsin had against the unit, there are reasons for optimism. The big thing is Illinois doesn't get to quarterbacks all that often, and if Hackenberg has time to throw and Barkley has lanes to run through, Penn State's offense should be able to put up points.
No matter what, I expect this to be a fun game, and I do think Illinois is a pretty solid team.
6. What's your prediction for Saturday's matchup?
I think Penn State wins. The Nittany Lions match up well with teams that have quarterbacks who aren't running threats, so I'm happy that the defense will get to pin its ears back and get after Lunt (even though the Illini's line has been quite good at preventing sacks this year). On the other side of the ball, the fact that Illinois hasn't gotten after quarterbacks all that much this year gives me some optimism that Hackenberg can get throws off. Whether they lead to anything is a good question - the Illini are good at forcing interceptions and they haven't given up too many yards through the air - so it should be fun.
In the end, I think Hackenberg outduels Lunt and Barkley makes a lot of plays on the ground by nature of him being awesome. Ferguson likely being out probably hurts Illinois more than you'd expect. Give me Penn State 24, Illinois 14.
7. Last question — how overrated is Christian Hackenberg? Be honest.
Depends on how you rate him. I think he's really, really good, but is oftentimes let down by a scheme where he isn't a great fit and an offensive line that struggles a lot of the time. I also think he has to improve his footwork, especially on shorter throws. But when he's on his game, he's quite possibly the best passer in college football and capable of making throws that maybe 10-15 people on earth can make.
So let's just table this discussion and pick it back up when he's an NFL Hall of Famer, cool?
Thank you again to Bill for taking the time to answer our questions! For more on Wisconsin, make sure to follow Black Shoe Diaries on Twitter. You can also check out their website for news and updates ahead of the game.