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Nittany Lions Look To Rebound Against Illinois

The Nittany Lions (4-3, 1-2) could use a win after the beating they took in Columbus last Saturday at the hands of Braxton Miller and the Ohio State Buckeyes. With the Illinois Fighting Illini (3-4, 0-3) coming to town tomorrow, there’s a good chance that Penn State will get that win.

In his second season at the helm of Illinois, head coach Tim Beckman has yet to win a conference game in 11 attempts. Barring an upset, Beckman and the Illini will leave Happy Valley with the 12th loss during his tenure. The game kicks off tomorrow at 12 p.m. at Beaver Stadium.

The team is certainly better than it was last season. The Illini have a decent passing game and a respectable overall offense, but what they have in offense they lack in defense. The Illini are allowing 33.7 points per game this season, putting them at 104th in the nation in defense.

Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, a four-year starter for the Illini, is on pace to have the best season of his career, but he has slowed down considerably since the Big Ten schedule began. The Penn State secondary has struggled this season, but it is good enough to hold off Scheelhaase.

Illinois has a solid running back duo in sophomore Josh Ferguson and junior Donovonn Young, but again, the two have slowed down during Big Ten play. Neither pose much of a challenge to a decent Penn State front seven that shut down a much better running back in Michgan’s Fitzgerald Toussaint a few weeks ago.

On the other side of the football, there’s the lackadaisical Illinois defense. It allowed 34 points against and FCS team, Southern Illinois. In Big Ten play, Illinois has given up 39, 56, and 42 points against Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Michigan State, respectively.

The Nittany Lions should have no problems putting up points tomorrow afternoon. The Illini run defense is especially bad, allowing 219.3 yards per game. Against inferior units, the Penn State run game was dominant earlier in the season.

Don’t expect the five touchdowns that the Nittany Lions’ running backs scored against Eastern Michigan, but do expect several hundred yards and at least a couple scores on the ground.

Illinois’ secondary is a bit better, but they don’t have any playmakers that stand out, and the Christian Hackenberg to Allen Robinson connection should be strong on Saturday. We might even see the tight ends utilized a bit more than they have been thus far this season, as Bill O’Brien said earlier this week that he might look to mix things up on offense a bit going forward.

Let’s take a look at some Illinois players worth keeping an eye on.

Nathan Scheelhaase #2 — In three conference games, Scheelhaase has averaged just 162.3 passing yards per game and has thrown no touchdowns and two interceptions. He excelled during the non-conference schedule, but better competition has put a halt to the senior quarterback’s success.

With Adrian Amos back at cornerback, Penn State’s secondary might be a bit stronger. Scheelhaase won’t play as poorly as he did against better Big Ten defenses the last three weeks, but he won’t have an easy time against the Nittany Lions through the air or on the ground.

Josh Ferguson #6 and Donovonn Young #5 — The running back duo has split carries evenly so far this season, as both guys have carried the ball 66 times through seven games. Ferguson is certainly the better of the two as he has 361 yards to Young’s 281. Ferguson is a shift back, standing at just 5-10 and weighing in at just 185 pounds. Young is two inches taller and 35 pounds heavier.

I wish I had more to put in this section, but there’s a severe lack of talent on this Illini squad. None of the receiving options stand out. There’s pretty much nobody worth mentioned on the defensive line, and the secondary isn’t all that impressive either.

With that, here are some things to watch for from the Nittany Lions:

Allen Robinson — I know, I know, I said that tomorrow would be all about the running game for Penn State, but things could go another way. Hackenberg should have plenty of time in the pocket all day, and Illinois has nobody that can come close to covering Robinson. He could go off tomorrow and put up some monster numbers.

The defense — A loss like the one suffered last Saturday can really give a defense nightmares. Giving up 63 points to a rival in a primetime game isn’t exactly a confidence booster. Illinois brings an offense that an angry Penn State defense will look to take advantage of and bounce back against. Will they shut them down? Probably not. Will they hold them to under four touchdowns? I think so.

The early going — You often see teams struggle early in games that follow demoralizing losses. I don’t suspect that this well be the case as O’Brien has done a great job instilling the message that you move forward after a loss and focus on the coming opponent.

He has also brought to Penn State the concept of playing 12 one-game seasons as opposed to one 12-game season. In other words, he wants the players to treat each game individually instead of worrying about what happened already or what will happen in the future. Even so, the potential for a slow first quarter from Penn State on both sides of the ball is a legitimate concern after being beaten to a pulp by the Buckeyes last Saturday.

By the Numbers: During the non-conference schedule, Illinois went 3-1, averaging 40.3 points per game on offense and allowing just 24.7 points from the opposition. During the Big Ten schedule, Illinois has lost all three games, scoring a sad 18 points per game and allowing 45.7 points per game.

Blast from the Past: Penn State played Illinois on the road last season, posting a decisive 35-7 victory that was certainly emotional. The Illini had multiple coaches waiting in State College last season when the NCAA announced that Penn State players could transfer without having to sit out for a season.

That type of behavior was one thing for your average college football team, but this was highly frowned upon coming from a fellow Big Ten team. That made the 35-7 in Illinois one of the more satisfying victories of the season for the Nittany Lions.

The two teams have played every year since 2005. The Nittany Lions are 6-2 against the Illini in that stretch.

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About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a StateCollege.com reporter and Onward State's Managing Editor Emeritus. You can find him at the Phyrst more nights than not. If he had to pick a last meal, Zach would go for a medium-rare New York strip steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a cold BrewDog Punk IPA. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter at @theZachBerger.

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