Following a heartbreaking defeat in Chicago, the Illini return home for a Friday night tilt with No. 10 Penn State. The Nittany Lions may well prove to be the best team on Illinois’ schedule this year, so the Illini cannot afford to brood on recent disappointments.
Here’s what needs to happen for a big upset in Champaign:
Control the clock
At its best, the Illini offense has sustained long drives, primarily on the ground with dynamic duo Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin. Not only has this resulted in numerous scoring drives (albeit more field goals than touchdowns), but it has kept a thin, inexperienced defense off the field.
Dominating possession will be critical against a prolific Lions offense. In addition to running back success, the Illini quarterback du jour will have to make correct reads on the ground and in the air to prevent lost yardage plays and turnovers.
Ideally, Lou Dorsey will return to provide a much needed safety valve and large, athletic target over the middle to alleviate pressure and rack up yardage after the catch.
Big Life, Big Stage, Small Plays
A week ago, against common opponent Kent State, the Lions’ offense hit big for individual plays of 22, 23, 40, 41, 69, and 95 yards, respectively. This Illini team cannot endure allowing similar large chunk plays. The Lovie Smith defensive identity began to shine through in the loss to South Florida, keeping the ball in front of the last line of defense, preventing big plays, rallying to the ball, and creating turnovers, until finally cracking late in the fourth quarter.
This identity maintenance is crucial against the high flying Lions. While Penn State returns 2017 efficiency champion Trace McSorley, the senior quarterback has lacked his trademark accuracy early in the 2018 campaign. The Illini will again need to win early downs and force a veteran quarterback make throws into coverage.
Getting fresh DBs like Nate Hobbs and Bennett Williams back could really bolster a thin defensive backfield that wore down against South Florida. If McSorley returns to ace form, the Illini may not have much of a shot, regardless.
But the Orange and Blue must put the onus on the once-assumed Heisman candidate to make consistent plays with his arm.
The Illini X Factor
It’s no secret that the Illini special teams has been the best unit for the Orange and Blue so far. This must continue.
Like South Florida in week two, Penn State is coming off a game with multiple long yardage returns in the kicking game. While Chase McLaughlin’s field goal heroics are well documented, his ability to hedge kickoff returns with regular touchbacks has been arguably as important — and will be key Friday night.
This extends to the punting game, where Blake Hayes has flipped fields and pinned opponents deep thus far. Hayes has out-kicked his coverage on a few occasions, though, being ultimately redeemed by sound open-field tackling. Hayes will need to get sufficient air under his punts to allow his coverage to get downfield and prevent Penn State’s athletes from getting too much breathing room.
In a perfect world, the Illini will keep this one tight until the end, and give McLaughlin a chance to win it with a late three. All the stars must align in the night sky over central Illinois on Friday to overcome the powerhouse Lions.
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