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Illinois Football Scouting Report: Penn State

The last time Penn State visited Champaign, the Illini won.

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

The Illinois Fighting Illini take on the No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions at home under the Friday Night Lights at Memorial Stadium. Penn State head coach James Franklin is 1-1 against the Illini since taking over in Happy Valley in 2014. Penn State is 18-5 all-time against Illinois, the first meeting dating back to 1959. After this game in 2018, the Illini won’t face Penn State until 2021.

Special Teams The Name of The Game... Again

Last week against South Florida, Lovie Smith’s bunch remarkably (and surprisingly) almost won in the same fashion his Chicago Bears teams of the past used to do: Through strong special teams, superior defense and grinding out games on the ground. Against Penn State, the Illini will need to dominate the special teams battle in order to keep this thing close.

Penn State has two studs on its return teams capable of going the distance on any given play. Senior DeAndre Thompkins is the Nittany Lions’ punt returner. He already has a punt return touchdown this season (against Pittsburgh) and also splits out wide as a receiver. The real special teams threat for Penn State is redshirt freshman kick returner K.J. Hamler. The undersized ‘human-joystick’ from Florida held offers from most Big Ten teams and several other Power 5 teams, and he is all kinds of speedy fast. In open space, he’s a terror to bring down and the Illini can’t let him have any opportunities to get going.

Last week, Illini kicker Chase McLaughlin consistently kicked the ball in the far back of the end zone for touchbacks, completely taking USF returner Terrence Horne out of the game. McLaughlin will need to do the same (and make his field goals) so Hamler and Thompkins are non-factors on Friday night.

Force QB Trace McSorley to Throw

The headline for this is a bit misleading since Trace McSorley led the Big Ten in accuracy/completion percentage last season among all Big Ten starting quarterbacks. He can sling it and he doesn’t make a whole lot of mistakes when forced to throw.

However, in the small sample size this season (games against Appalachian State, Pittsburgh and Kent State), McSorley is proving to be more of a runner than a passer. McSorley leads all Big Ten players in rushing touchdowns with six, while last season he had 11 rushing touchdowns — he’s sure to shatter that number this season. He has five passing touchdowns to just one interception, but his completion percentage is far lower at this point in time than his career average.

What gives? Yes, it’s still early — but right now Penn State does not really have a go-to wide receiver or tight end who has really emerged as a reliable threat. Penn State does not have a receiver with more than eight receptions thus far, and the two leading receivers appear to be the aforementioned K.J. Hamler and junior Juwan Johnson. True freshman Justin Shorter arrived in State College with a ton of hype and there’s still plenty of time to get him going, but he missed PSU’s first two games with an undisclosed injury. Will he get in on the action in Champaign?

This could be a case of Trace McSorley still adjusting to his teammates without security blankets from last season in Saquon Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki there to pass the ball to. Those three players combined for 164 receptions last season. That’s a lot to overcome.

Illinois Must Sustain Long Drives, Play Smart Football

The Fighting Illini did a really nice job of keeping the ball against USF a week ago. Mike Epstein had 19 rushes for 113 yards and a touchdown, and while the Illini were poor on third down, the team was able to compete with South Florida for all four quarters because they kept USF’s offense off of the field and the Illini weren’t the most penalized team. USF shot themselves in the foot with 14 penalties for 124 yards compared to Illinois’ six penalties for 65 yards.

The week before the USF game, against Western Illinois — Lovie Smith’s Illini were called for 14 penalties for 145 yards. Offensive holding and targeting appear to be the main culprits, and against Penn State — a team loaded with defensive stars including cornerback Amani Oruwariye (the best CB in the Big Ten) and defensive end Shareef Miller — the Illini can’t afford to be the more penalized team. If so, Penn State will turn around and punish the weaker foe.

Illinois must continue to feed Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin; keep Trace McSorley off the field as long as possible; and chew up the clock. Those two running backs need to be effective in order for quarterbacks AJ Bush and and MJ Rivers to have time in the pocket.

Illinois is not a home-run type offense like Penn State can be. Football is won ‘one inch at a time’ — that’s the approach the Illini need to take in order to keep pace with one of the top teams in the nation.

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