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Staff Predictions: Penn State vs. Illinois

Penn State takes on Illinois on Saturday in its first game since gaining bowl eligibility. Our staff thinks that Illinois coach Tim Beckman will fall to 0-3 against the Nittany Lions in his career.

Here are our thoughts:

CJ Doon: Penn State 24, Illinois 13

Illinois is 4-6 this season, with wins over Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, Texas State, and Minnesota. Granted, the Gophers were ranked at the time, giving Tim Beckman his second win against Big Ten competition in three seasons. However, Illinois only racked up 263 total yards of offense in that game, and needed three turnovers, including a 12-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to pull ahead late.

For Penn State, the main concern will be quarterback Wes Lunt. The Oklahoma State transfer has passed for over 1,600 yards and 14 touchdowns to only three interceptions this season, including a 65 percent completion percentage and 7.74 yards per attempt. He missed five games with a fractured fibula before coming back against Iowa, but finished a quiet 14-25 for 102 yards and one touchdown in a loss to the Hawkeyes. Even with Lunt sidelined for half the season, the Illinois passing attack ranks 44th in the nation at 255.6 yards per game, well ahead of Penn State’s 55th ranked passing offense of 237.5 yards per game.

But, as has been the general theme this season, Penn State’s defense is up to the task. I won’t bore you with statistics about how good Bob Shoop’s unit is playing (ranking in the top four of almost every major team defense metric), but it is important to note that Penn State’s passing efficiency defense ranks first in the country, and its 15 interceptions rank 10th nationally. Freshmen cornerbacks Christian Campbell and Grant Haley and safety Marcus Allen have added exceptional play-making skills to an already stout secondary.

There’s a reason this game is kicking off at noon on The Deuce: it’s going to be ugly. Look for Penn State to start sluggish on offense before the running game tramples over the nation’s fifth-worst rush defense, allowing 267 yards per game. With 7 wins, it will be interesting to see what bowl games will come calling.

Doug Leeson: Penn State 23, Illinois 10

Not much needs to be said about this one. The Illini aren’t particularly good at anything and have lost five of their last six games. Even with its win over Minnesota, Illinois is unquestionably one of Penn State’s weakest opponents this season. Lots of tickets are up for sale for less than five dollars, and that should be indicative of the quality of the upcoming game.

The Nittany Lions’ well-documented dominant defense is going to have a fun game, the offense is going to be there, and Sam Ficken will continue his Groza Award campaign.

I’m looking forward to what should hopefully be a stress-free Saturday afternoon. Tim Beckman’s squad won’t protect its house, and it’ll be a happy Thanksgiving for the Nittany Lions. Bring on Sparty.

Ben Berkman: Penn State 30, Illinois 10

Penn State seems to be decent at beating subpar teams on the road this year, and Saturday’s matchup against Illinois will once again fall into that category. After victories at Rutgers, Indiana, and (technically ) Central Florida, the Nittany Lions should once again feast on a Big Ten bottom feeder en route to its seventh victory. which will set up a Senior Day showdown with Michigan State after Thanksgiving.

The whole, “Penn State is bad, the other team is worse” narrative will once again fall into play in Champaign. The Illini feature quarterback Wes Lunt, who James Franklin “recruited the heck out of,” and appears that he would have been a serious threat. However, a leg fracture has left Lunt hobbled and slowed, according to Franklin, and Penn State’s defense should feast on the otherwise sparkless Illinois offense.

If the Temple game was any indication, it now seems that Penn State’s run game is finding more success than Hackenberg’s passes. Either way, Illinois boasts the No. 113 scoring defense in the country, so Penn State shouldn’t have trouble finding the end zone at least a few times. It could be the first dominant road win we’ve seen in a while.

Mike Reisman: Penn State 20, The Fighting Illinoises 7

I know, Penn State putting up 20 is laughable. I’m laughing at myself for writing it. Realistically it’s more like 7-0 Illinois early, 7-7 for most of the game, and eventually Penn State gets a couple of field goals in the fourth to go up 13-7. A lucky garbage time touchdown will make it look like a competent-ish win against a not so competent team. Basically this is Indiana just in a different state. But like the exact same game with an extra touchdown.

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