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TCR Staff Predictions: Illinois at Penn State

Maybe it won’t be that bad?

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Quentin Wetzel: Penn State 35, Illinois 6

I’m a big analytics guy, and there’s this crazy concept in analytics that you have to score points to win a football game. Weird, I know. Anyway, Illinois… doesn’t score many points. The shutout to Wisconsin two weeks ago stands out, but the Illini have scored more than 17 points just once in their previous 5 games. Even in that game, they scored only 24 against one of the worst defenses in the country in Charlotte. Needless to say, I don’t envision the Illini lighting up the scoreboard against Penn State’s top-10 defense. PSU starting quarterback Sean Clifford’s injury may save Illinois from complete annihilation, but even so, I just don’t see a path to victory here. You have to score points to win a football game.

Thumpasaurus: Penn State 45, Illinois 0

What a blessing this game is for Penn State with Sean Clifford’s status unknown. They have a bye week and an offense-only scrimmage against Illinois to get Ta’Quan Roberson working with the first string offense. This went poorly at Kinnick a couple weeks ago, with a lot of miscommunication leading to false starts, route confusion and all sorts of disruption. Penn State will use this opportunity to scrimmage against an opponent with a dead offense (thus providing no game pressure) and iron out a lot of the kinks. This is just a statement of fact. Penn State’s defense is in the same tier as Wisconsin’s. This means that, like two weeks ago, the Illini offense won’t even get into field goal range unless they start there due to a turnover. They’ll then have to kick on first down to avoid backing out of field goal range.

This offense is truly putrid beyond salvation. It starts with the offensive line. The tackles have regressed over the last several years. Doug Kramer remains solid in the middle, but the guards are simply not strong enough to run any of the basic run concepts that are supposed to be foundational to our game plan. The entire bread and butter of this offense is just not achievable the way the offensive line has been executing this year. Rosy projections based on experience and fond memories of the 2018 ground attack have shown themselves to be mirages; in reality this group is a huge liability. While they’ve been okay at pass blocking, it hasn’t mattered because Illinois has so little success on first and especially second down that they find themselves in obvious passing downs frequently, allowing the defense to commit to pass rushing.

The quarterbacks, then, already face an uphill battle, but even in this context they’ve been terrible. Both quarterbacks have awful pocket awareness, frequently bailing out of clean pockets right into where the defensive pressure actually is. I have no idea how you fix this. Peters doesn’t have the confidence to throw over the middle and is best rolling out, taking away half the field. Sitkowski should have been picked off at least three times against Wisconsin and is a step late on every single throw he makes. Even within the context of the limitations this offense places on you, this has been the worst quarterback play I’ve ever seen at Illinois.

It’s hard to know what to do, then, in calling the plays. There’s a lot of nits I’d pick with specific play calls, but Tony Petersen has come up with a few plays. There’s a wheel/post combo that’s hit for a few long completions that is seldom used. He’s made a very concerted effort to get the ball into the hands of Isaiah Williams, but that hasn’t yielded much success for a variety of reasons. Williams badly misfired on an easy pass to Peters on a great trick play earlier, and he doesn’t have the Percy Harvin speed it would take to gain yards on the jet sweep when the blocking can’t set the edge. Luke Ford and Daniel Barker have been involved, but Peters won’t throw over the middle and Sitkowski really shouldn’t. Brian Hightower and Jafar Armstrong have been invisible. I questioned Deuce Spann’s move to receiver, but he’s better at that position than most of our scholarship receivers. Where is James Frenchie?

The backs have been doing fairly well, although their rotation and usage is where I question Petersen the most because Jakari Norwood is just not a short-yardage guy. McCray was not very good against Charlotte before getting three carries against Wisconsin. Brown found space on a few plays in that game, but when you’re constantly being hit behind the line there’s only so much you can do.

This offense is just beyond pitiful, and the answer to why that’s the case boils down to “pretty much everything.”

The best part? So far, it doesn’t look like help is on the way.

Mihir Chavan: Illinois +23.5

We all heard the presser. Bielema will be starting more of “his guys”. The youth movement is here and will be walking into Happy Valley with little experience. Penn State has a better defense than Wisconsin and a better passing attack than Virginia. Signs point to another blowout. To stay positive,Ryan Walter’s defense has kept opposing teams under 24 points for the last few games and has succeeded well in the red zone. The offense, well, not much needs to be said. I think the Illinois defense keeps them in the game. Offense scores in garbage time. I think we do better to control the clock than what we did against Wisconsin. Going on a limb here: Illinois covers. Weirder things have happened. Besides, Penn State’s eyes are on Ohio State next week.

Matt Rejc: Penn State 52, Illinois 6

This is just about the worst possible situation for the Illini to be in after the shutout loss to Wisconsin. The team has had a bye week to think about their poor performance against the Badgers, and they are now thrown into a hopeless game on the road against Penn State. The Nittany Lions are reeling from their close loss at Iowa two weeks ago, and will be hungry to make a statement win this week against an opponent who won’t be able to stand up to them. About the best Illinois can hope for in this game is that they don’t suffer any further injuries.