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Illinois’ 2018 Most Winnable Game Countdown: No. 11 - Penn State

The Friday night conference opener will be tough.

Illinois v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

One piece of good news for Illinois Football in 2018? The Illini avoid cross-divisional games against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in its schedule. The bad news? Penn State is there, an opponent the Illini haven’t played since 2015 and haven’t played in Champaign since ‘14.

The 2018 Illinois vs. Penn State game will take place at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on a Friday night on FS1, the second-straight year the Illini have a game on a Friday. It represents the Big Ten opener for both teams, to be played on Sept. 21.

“I don’t expect many more than two [Friday night Big Ten] games a season, but I do expect to have those continue into the future” Commissioner Jim Delany said at Big Ten Media Days when asked about the Friday Big Ten football slate.

Defensively, defensive end Shareef Miller, safety Nick Scott and cornerback Amani Oruwariye are Penn State’s best players on that side of the ball.

Offensively, Penn State is anchored by the best center in the Big Ten Conference in Connor McGovern, a player who started all 13 games for Penn State as a sophomore last season. Head coach James Franklin spoke to reporters at Big Ten Media Days about just how versatile Connor McGovern is. McGovern can play center or move to either guard spot depending on how the rest of the O-line competition shakes out. Such versatility adds to the already impressive and very real NFL hype surrounding the junior from Larksville, PA.

Penn State has one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in the country in returning starter Trace McSorley. McSorley is one of eight returning starters to the Penn State offense, though the three starters no longer there — running back Saquon Barkley, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki — are three big, big losses for coach Franklin and his staff. The Nittany Lions will be relying on freshman wide receiver Justin Shorter to come in and contribute immediately to help offset those losses.

If the Illini have an advantage, it’s this: The last time Illinois beat Penn State back in 2014, Penn State’s following game was a home contest against the 2-loss Michigan State Spartans. Penn State ended up losing that game 34-10. This season, the week after the Illini/Penn State game, Penn State hosts what could very well be an undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes team.

Is it possible Penn State overlooks Illinois? College teams tend to do this more than pro teams, as the lead-up to a huge, ranked, divisional game at home undoubtedly crosses the minds of 18 to 20-year-old kids. Illinois hasn’t done much to earn much respect these last couple of years, and perhaps the Illini could catch Penn State in a trap game.

With an experienced quarterback like Trace McSorley returning, odds are against the orange and blue. Since James Franklin’s arrived, Penn State’s recruiting has been up to the standards of what Urban Meyer has been doing at Ohio State. Illini fans will see and notice the difference in caliber of athlete come Sept. 21 under the Friday night lights in Champaign.

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