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Staff Predictions: Penn State vs. Illinois

Bowl eligibility is having quite the charming effect, especially on Onward State’s sports staff. On the heels of an exciting 31-30 victory over Maryland at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Penn State seems to be the unanimous victor in the team’s home matchup against Illinois this weekend as the team returns to friendly confines after two weeks on the road.

David Abruzzese (season record 6-2): Penn State 30, Illinois 20

Tim Beckman is long gone, the program sits wedged between Northwestern and Minnesota in the Big Ten West, and Juice Williams isn’t coming back anytime soon.

Don’t be fooled, however. This is a scrappy Illini team playing like it has nothing else to lose while riding a two-game losing streak that’s seen the team fall by narrow margins to divisional rivals. Quarterback Wes Lunt is having himself a solid year, recording nine touchdowns to only three interceptions. Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn is a weapon out of the backfield, but this offense is missing a bulk of its receiving production with sophomore wide receiver Mike Dudek nursing a torn ACL suffered prior to the start of the season.

Again, Illinois might not be a powerhouse, but it’ll certainly put up a fight against Penn State. Don’t agree with me? Ask Vegas — Penn State is only favored by four and a half points. Expect this game to be exciting and pass-heavy, as Christian Hackenberg and Wes Lunt face off in a gunslinger’s duel.

Patrick Koerbler (season record 6-0): Penn State 26, Illinois 21

After back-to-back weeks of struggling against read option attacks, Bob Shoop’s defense will be happy to face the Illini’s pass-oriented pro-style offense. Leading Illinois is quarterback Wes Lunt who serves as one of the Big Ten’s premier passers, but struggles with consistency — a description Penn State fans are familiar with. Like Hackenberg, Lunt has the potential to be a game changer for his squad. He’s prone to missing throws here and there, but his arm talent can’t be questioned. The key for Penn State will be getting pressure on the Illini signal caller, not allowing him to feel comfortable in the pocket.

While Illinois won’t surprise anybody as a college football juggernaut, it’s no longer among the bottom feeders of the Big Ten like it was just a few years ago. As much as it may pain Penn State fans to say, Tim Beckman did a solid job rebuilding the program, even if he didn’t get to reap the benefits. I still expect a Penn State win — thanks mainly in part to Saquon Barkley — but make no mistake, the Illini aren’t pushovers.

Matt Coleman (season record 5-2): Penn State 21, Illinois 14

Coming off a big win last week against Maryland that saw Penn State clinch a bowl berth, the team heads into this week facing a 4-3 Illinois team that, despite, its average record, has been impressive at times this year. Though inconsistent, the Illini have the potential to pull off the upset this week.

That said, Penn State will prevail. Potential is one thing, but executing is another. Illinois hasn’t been consistent on offense this year (Penn State hasn’t either, mind you), but Penn State’s defense has proven itself time and time again this year. Quarterback Wes Lunt and the Illini won’t get much on Bob Shoop’s defense, but offensively, I expect the Lions to do what they’ve done to find a way to win. It doesn’t necessarily matter how they win, just know the Nittany Lions will be 7-2 after this game.

 Ethan Kasales (season record 6-1): Penn State 31, Illinois 20

Last weekend’s narrow victory over Maryland saw the Nittany Lion passing attack take off, thanks in large part to a litany of chunk completions from Christian Hackenberg to Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton. The only problem was trying to stop the Terrapins’ ground game.

On Halloween, the Penn State defense will greet the incoming Illini with some added motivation, but the team from Champaign doesn’t trot out much of a dual-threat in Wes Lunt, and that’s reason enough to be confident in a bounce-back from Bob Shoop’s boys.

I’ll be interested to see if the Nittany Lions can finally get some juice from their special teams units, especially the returners. The second-to-last Beaver Stadium family reunion of the season, as James Franklin likes to call it, will be adorned in purple and gray and excited to see its newly bowl-eligible Lions play.

Ben Berkman (season record 7-1): Penn State 27, Illinois 17

Penn State’s defense has struggled most against quarterbacks that are quick on their feet, able to spread the Lions thin. Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Army’s A.J. Schurr, and Maryland’s Perry Hills all proved shifty challenges for Penn State’s line.

Fortunately, Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound pocket passer, does not possess those traits (he’s rushed nine times for -61 yards all year). The towering Lunt stands strong in the pocket, but with little mobility, Penn State’s nationally leading defensive line should pressure him early and often.

The defense should be able to hold a recently cold Illini offense in check. Christian Hackenberg and his receiving corps, fresh off a 300-yard game, should be able to put up just enough points to squeak out another nail biter that really shouldn’t have been as close as the score.

Kaitlyn Dividock (season record 6-1): Penn State 30, Illinois 17

With Penn State’s bye week still two weeks away, you’d think James Franklin is worried about keeping his guys fresh. With the team cutting back in practice and running walk-throughs with no pads, it shows just how focused he his on the stamina of his team.

But don’t let this little detail fool you, the newly bowl eligible Lions have this tilt against the Illini completely in the bag. 

Christian Hackenberg is on fire, and expect the bombs he tossed during last week’s game against Maryland to continue to show up this week. On paper, the running game seems like the key to success, but don’t be surprised if Penn State takes down the Illini through the air. The receiving corps heads into this match up oozing confidence — an indicator of success come gameday.

Speaking of Illinois’ offense, it’s a unit that likes to frequently throw the ball. Wes Lunt is your prototypical pocket quarterback, which should allow the Lions to breathe easy and have no trouble stopping him on the ground. Overall, Penn State should leave this game with another solid win toward its respectable record.

Tim Reams (season record 4-1): Penn State 31, Illinois 20

The Fighting Illini boast one of their best teams in years. Headed by an impressive offensive line and quarterback, the offense poses a formidable passing threat that won’t outdo the potent Penn State secondary, but it’ll certainly have to play smart and disciplined throughout.

The Illini defense has also climbed all the way to 33rd best in the country, and will certainly challenge an improving Nittany Lions front.  The difference between Illinois, Army, Indiana, Maryland, and Ohio State is the quarterbacks’ run games. Wes Lunt, the impressive Illini gunslinger, has rushed for -61 yards on 9 attempts this season. Mobile quarterbacks have punished the Nittany Lions four weeks in a row, but this week they’ll finally get a break. The Penn State offense is improving every week, and the results should show against the Illini. Ultimately, the Nittany Lions and their dominant defense will prove to be too much across four quarters for the Fighting Illini, but that doesn’t mean this game will be dull by any stretch of the imagination.

Doug Leeson (season record 6-2): Penn State 21, Illinois 20

Same margin of victory as last week. Maryland is a fine team that isn’t on the same level as Penn State, but it brought the house and broke out all of its best players and plays to try to bring down the Nittany Lions. I have a feeling Illinois, a team that is fine but strictly worse than Penn State, will play similarly. Lunt isn’t as mobile as the past two weeks’ quarterbacks, but he’s arguably better through the air. Bob Shoop’s defense has given up an uncharacteristic number of points in the last two games, and it’ll get back on track this week.

But more importantly to me…why, Big Ten, why must this be a noon game? I’m preemptively tired — please show mercy when we travel to Chicago next week.

Jacob Abrams (season record 7-1): Penn State 30, Illinois 24

The Nittany Lions’ narrow victory over Maryland taught me that you should never underestimate an opponent. Illinois is another team that Penn State shouldn’t certainly can’t overlook.

Penn State’s defense has been solid all season, but it faces a test in the balanced Illinois attack. The Illini can get it done through the air with Wes Lunt, who has 1,702 passing yards with nine touchdowns this season. It can also win on the ground with the committee of Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Josh Ferguson. The two backs combine for 828 yards of the Fighting Illini’s rushing production.

Now that John Donovan knows how to effectively use the deep pass against Maryland, expect Hackenberg to do much of the same against the Fighting Illini. Another big game for Hackenberg is possible, but Illinois has done a solid job containing opposing quarterbacks this season. Penn State will defeat Illinois by a narrow margin for its second victory in a row.

Ben Rappaport (season record 4-1): Penn State 24, Illinois 17

Penn State is severely beat up right now. With its bye still a couple weeks away, Penn State looks to sneak through these next two games against Illinois and Northwestern. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Fighting Illini are going to roll over that easily. Illinois’ junior quarterback, Wes Lunt, is having a big year. The pocket passer will have his hands full though, going up against Penn State’s vicious defensive line. Led by current FBS sack king Carl Nassib, the Nittany Lions will look to attack Lunt fast and furious right from the start. Shoop will probably try and implement some interesting blitz packages in order to shake up the very accurately passing Lunt. With Penn State’s healthiest unit being its secondary, Jordan Lucas, Marcus Allen, and true freshmen John Reid will have to make some key plays in order to really keep Penn State in the game.
On the other side of the ball, the Penn State offense will have to adapt to whichever outlet the Illinois’ defensive commits to stopping. If the Illini go all out on slowing down freshman phenom Saquon Barkley, hopefully Donovan will adjust the game plan and air it out more with Hackenberg. Against Maryland we saw this work out, but if it doesn’t, it wouldn’t be the first time Donovan screws up play calling and costs Penn State a W. My final prediction is that we see a back and forth contest similar to the Maryland game, and Penn State comes out on top. The Nittany Lions will maintain their undefeated home record and inch closer and closer to a high profile bowl game.

What’s your prediction? Tell us in the comments below.

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Posts from the all-student staff of Onward State.

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