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Penn State Football With Chance To Prove Itself Defensively Against Illinois

Penn State’s defense has its most challenging opponent yet Saturday as the Nittany Lions open Big Ten play at Illinois. The group has yielded mixed results despite the blue and white starting the season 2-0, and Saturday’s matchup will provide a better measurement of how good it really is.

Look at Penn State’s opening games as a best-of-three series. Manny Diaz’s defense appeared to struggle against in game one West Virginia, a formidable opponent, allowing 308 yards. It was challenging throughout the game to handle quarterback Garrett Greene’s mobility, as he threw for 162 yards, ran for 77 yards and a touchdown, and didn’t turn the ball over.

The next week, Penn State held Delaware to just 140 offensive yards the whole game. The defense played lights-out for almost the entire game, with the exception of Marcus Yarns’ 66-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. The Nittany Lions also had their first two turnovers of the season, with Dom DeLuca having a pick-six and Kevin Winston Jr. recovering a fumble.

The defense’s success against the Blue Hens eased many concerns over the group’s performance one week prior, as the whole unit appeared to be in check and prepared for the road ahead. What was reassuring about it wasn’t just that the starters played well, but how good many of the second and third-stringers looked.

King Mack, Tony Rojas, and Elliot Washington III are just a few of the younger backups that impressed. Mack had two tackles and a quarterback hurry, Rojas had two tackles and a tackle for loss, and Washington had another two tackles. The trio was given the green light by James Franklin before the season, as they are expected to be significant pieces of the defense in the near future given their potential coming out of high school.

Although none of those three players had sacks, Jameial Lyons and Zuriah Fisher did. Both Lyons and Fisher are lower on the Nittany Lions’ depth chart, so this type of performance is an encouraging sign in the event a starter is injured, and for the future in general.

That future includes the game against Illinois in week three. Playing any Big Ten team is a bigger test, and the matchup will provide a better measurement of how the defense can play in more meaningful games against higher-caliber opponents.

The biggest task will be containing Illinois quarterback Luke Altmyer. Like Greene, Altmyer can run, as he has 139 rushing yards so far this season. He’s a decent passer, with 408 passing yards. The sophomore has three touchdowns this season: two in the air and another on the ground.

However, Altmyer’s accuracy leaves a few things to be desired. First of all, he’s already thrown three interceptions in just two games as Illinois’ starting quarterback. Additionally, he completed less than 70% of his passes in both games. Neither of these things can fly in order to be a successful quarterback in the Big Ten.

So, Penn State’s defense will be tested by Altmyer’s mobility. Will they be better at containing him when he tries to run, but also be able to drop back quickly enough when he decides to throw?

Altmyer’s tendencies to throw picks should have Manny Diaz’s unit salivating, and there’s no denying the talent on paper. Kalen King, for instance, is a likely NFL Draft selection who had three interceptions last year. Abdul Carter, on the other hand, has yet to register a pick in his collegiate career, and the moment he secures his first may happen on Saturday.

Good defensive end play will also be important if the Nittany Lions are to stop Altmyer. Chop Robinson and Adisa Isaac, who are also projected NFL Draft picks, make up a dangerous duo at defensive end. Robinson had 20 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery, and a forced fumble last season. Isaac, on the other hand, had 28 total tackles and four sacks in 2022. Trying to cover both players at once is a tall task, as both are capable of wreaking havoc given these statistics.

Ultimately, Saturday is a test to see if Penn State has learned how to be better at stopping mobile quarterbacks and if it can capitalize on the opposing quarterback’s glaring weaknesses. If Penn State does these things, there’s no reason for any additional concerns.

At the end of the day, the Nittany Lions have what it takes to shut down Altmyer and the Illini. It just remains to be seen if those week-one cobwebs against better opponents have been shaken off. If they are, it could be a long afternoon for Illinois.

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About the Author

Nolan Wick

Nolan is a third-year journalism major from Silver Spring, Maryland, which means he's an avid fan of all D.C. sports teams. If Nolan isn't writing about or watching sports, you can probably find him listening to all sorts of music or traveling. To keep up with Nolan, you can follow him on Twitter @nolan_wick or email him at [email protected].

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