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Previewing The Enemy: Illinois Fighting Illini

No. 7 Penn State football is back from the bye week, folks.

The Nittany Lions finally have a chance to wash the taste of the Iowa loss out of their mouths with this weekend’s Homecoming game against Illinois. The matchup is set for a noon kickoff this Saturday and expected to serve as a nice welcome to the second half of the season before James Franklin’s team travels to Columbus for a huge clash with Ohio State.

Before the second half of the 2021 campaign begins, however, let’s take a look at the Nittany Lions’ week eight opponent.

The Team

Bret Bielema took over as Lovie Smith’s successor in Champaign this past offseason. Bielema kicked off his tenure as head coach for the Fighting Illini with a 30-22 win over Nebraska, but the team followed that with losses to UTSA, Virginia, Maryland, and Purdue. Illinois managed to grab a win over Charlotte in early October but couldn’t keep the momentum and got shut out by Wisconsin the following week.

Now with a 2-5 record overall and a 1-3 mark in conference play, the Illini sit at sixth in the Big Ten West.

The struggles have come on both sides of the ball for Bielema’s group, as the offense is averaging a Big Ten-worst 17.7 points per game. As for the defense, the group has allowed 24.6 points per game to opponents thus far, which is good for 12th in the conference.

Coming off of a bye week as well, Illinois and its lowly offense will need to go against a Brent Pry-led defense that is near the top of all statistical categories. The Nittany Lions have won the last three games in this series, and the Illini will likely have trouble trying to flip that trend on Saturday.

Offense

Illinois’ quarterbacks have struggled to lead the offense so far this fall. Artur Sitkowski played fairly well in the season-opening win over the Cornhuskers, as the sophomore led the Illini by throwing for 124 yards and two touchdowns. The Rutgers transfer replaced Brandon Peters after he went down with an injury in that opening game, and started in the next two contests against UTSA and Virginia.

Sitkowski threw for more than 200 yards and at least one touchdown in both of those contests, but Peters got the start in the following three games. The senior didn’t do anything overly impressive from there and was once again replaced by Sitkowski when he went down with another injury against Wisconsin.

Similar to the Nittany Lions, Illinois has held its cards fairly tight to the chest in terms of who will start this Saturday. Bielema noted earlier this week that it’s still “to be determined,” and that hasn’t publicly changed as gameday draws closer.

No matter who starts at quarterback, redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams is undoubtedly the biggest threat in the passing attack. James Franklin noted Williams during his Wednesday practice availability as a player who Penn State better have eyes on at all times, and for good reason.

As a true freshman last season, Williams lined up at quarterback against the Nittany Lions. He threw for 120 yards and even rushed for another 102, including a massive 64-yard gain during a cold day at Beaver Stadium.

This season, Williams paces Illinois with 32 catches worth 298 yards. He’s Illinois’ only 200-yard receiver this year, but Casey Washington and Donny Navarro III have also impressed so far. The first of the pair, a sophomore from Texas, has grabbed 13 catches for 108 yards, while Navarro has added 11 worth 105. Redshirt freshman Deuce Spann, who arrived at Illinois as a quarterback, only has four catches this season but has made them count for 117 yards and two touchdowns.

As for the Fighting Illini’s rushing attack, it’s been a group effort in every sense of the word. The team has five rushers who’ve gained over 100 yards on the season already, including the leaders of the group, Chase Brown and Joshua McCray.

McCray is the leader in the clubhouse with 63 carries, but it’s Brown who’s paced the team with 414 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Brown’s stats are highly inflated by the career day he had against Charlotte, however. The sophomore exploded for 257 rushing yards on 26 carries, which was good for 9.9 yards per attempt. He also managed two touchdowns on the day.

It’s been more of a steady effort for McCray, who built his way up to an impressive 156-yard day in a loss against Purdue. Reggie Love III could also be a factor in the rushing attack Saturday, as he’s third on the team with 42 rushes worth 150 yards.

Defense

Illinois’ defense has been one of the worst in the Big Ten so far. In fact, the Fighting Illini are dead last in the conference for total defense, as they allow 427.9 yards per game. Considering the offenses it’s faced so far, those struggles are particularly alarming for Bielema’s team.

Even with a possible backup quarterback in and a lackluster rushing attack for Penn State, Mike Yurcich’s group could cause serious problems for Illinois.

Despite the trouble it’s seen this season, Illinois’ defense does have some talent the Nittany Lions will likely be keying in on. Linebackers Tarique Barnes and Owen Carney Jr. have both have solid seasons thus far, as the first of the pair is second on the Illini with 42 total tackles. Carney only has 25 total tackles, but his five tackles for loss (four of which are sacks) leads the team.

Illinois’ rushing defense has certainly struggled this year, but they’re led on the defensive line by Jer’Zhan Newton and Roderick Perry II. Newtown has 17 total tackles this season, including two losses, while Perry has added 15 stops, including two for a loss.

A sign of a struggling rushing defense can sometimes lead to a ton of tackles for members of the secondary, and that’s the case for Illinois this season. Defensive back Sydney Brown paces the team with 48 total tackles, while Tony Adams has 37 and Kerby Joseph has 36.

Joseph leads the team with three interceptions while Adams has one of his own, but Illinois’ pass defense has also been less than stellar. The group is 13th in the Big Ten with 264.7 yards through the air allowed per game and has been picked apart by multiple quarterbacks this season. Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell and Jack Plummer totaled for 277 yards in a win over the Illini, while Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong exploded for 405 yards in week two.

Most recently, however, the Illini allowed just 100 passing yards to Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz in the 24-0 defeat. However, it was clearly a day dominated by running backs, as the Badgers totaled a massive 391 rushing yards on Illinois.

Special Teams

Senior James McCourt has handled the kicking duties for Illinois all year long. The Florida native has been perfect on 14 extra points, while he’s 8-for-12 on all field goal units. He does have one short-range miss, but the other three have all been from at least 50 yards out.

The starting punter since 2017, Blake Hayes has been rock solid for Illinois this season. The senior out of Australia already has 10 punts worth more than 50 yards and is averaging 45.5 yards per attempt. Hayes, who was the 2019 Big Ten Punter of the Year, could be one of Illinois’ more important defensive weapons on Saturday.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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