Penn State news by
Penn State's student blog



Previewing The Enemy: Illinois Fighting Illini

It’s the lovely time of the season when Penn State begins its Big Ten schedule. This year, the Illinois Fighting Illini await the Nittany Lions on Saturday, September 16, in Champaign, Illinois.

Penn State most recently played Illinois in October 2021 at Beaver Stadium, losing 20-18 in nine overtimes, the most in college football history.

The Nittany Lions will open conference play on the road for the eighth consecutive season. Consistently starting away from Happy Valley has irritated James Franklin, as he called the scheduling a “tradition.” His team opened its Big Ten schedule at Illinois in 2018 and won 63-24.

The blue and white own a 20-6 record against the Illini but are 3-2 in the last five matchups. So without further ado, let’s meet this week’s opponent from the Big Ten West.

The Team

Illinois is off to a shaky 1-1 start. The Illini barely defeated Toledo 30-28 in week one, then lost 34-23 at Kansas last week.

Bret Bielema is now in his third season as the program’s head coach. He went 5-7 in 2021, then followed it up with an 8-5 record in 2022 that saw the Illini remain in the AP Top 25 for several weeks and play in a Bowl game for the first time since 2019.

Four Fighting Illini heard their names called in the 2023 NFL Draft, including cornerback Devon Witherspoon, who was selected by the Seattle Seahawks with the No. 5 overall pick. Defensive backs Jartavius Martin and Sydney Brown were drafted by the Washington Commanders and Philadelphia Eagles in the second and third rounds, respectively. Running back Chase Brown, meanwhile, was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the fifth round.

Illinois had eight All-Big Ten selections last season. Witherspoon, Sydney Brown, and lineman Jer’Zhan Newton were named to the first-team defense, while Martin and lineman Keith Randolph were third-team selections. Meanwhile, Chase Brown and center Alex Pihlstrom were named to the second-team offense, and tackle Alex Palczewski was named to the third-team offense.

The Illini also had four All-Americans. Witherspoon was named to the first team, while Chase Brown and Newton earned second-team honors. Additionally, Palczewski earned a spot on the third team.


Luke Altmyer is Illinois’ quarterback. The sophomore from Starkville, Mississippi, transferred into the program after two seasons at Ole Miss.

Altmyer has been up and down this season, with three passing touchdowns and three interceptions. He has 408 passing yards and is 37-for-54 in attempts so far. Altmyer is a dual-threat quarterback, and he also has two rushing touchdowns through 139 yards.

Altmyer’s starting wide receiver corps of Isaiah Williams, Casey Washington, and Pat Bryant are all returning starters. Williams is the top receiver of the group, and he led the Illini in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns last season. Although he’s yet to register a touchdown this season, his 150 receiving yards rank first on the team.

Washington and Bryant have 68 and 61 receiving yards, respectively. Bryant’s two touchdowns make him the only wideout to have scored for the Illini this season.

Altmyer has involved the tight ends as well. Tip Reiman takes over as the starter and is Illinois’ top player at the position with 37 receiving yards and one touchdown. Fellow tight end Griffin Moore also has 56 receiving yards, which is good for fourth on the team.

Meanwhile, Reggie Love III is the starting running back in Champaign. The junior from St. Louis has 112 rushing yards over 20 carries but hasn’t scored a touchdown yet. He’s already amassed his last rushing yardage total from last season of just 33, as he’s now the primary tailback due to Chase Brown’s departure to the NFL.

While most of Illinois’ starting skill players are upperclassmen, the offensive line is young and will need to find ways to succeed without Pihlstrom and Palczewski. Sophomore Josh Kreutz replaces Pihlstrom at center, while Palczewski is being replaced by sophomore Josh Gesky. Meanwhile, Zy Crisler remains at right guard, and Julian Pearl and Isaiah Adams are at left tackle and left guard, respectively.

Illinois was primarily a run-heavy team last season with 543 rushing attempts and 395 passing attempts in the campaign. The offense is more balanced through the first two games this year, though, with 63 rushing attempts and 54 passing attempts. The Illini have 350 rushing yards (4.9 average per attempt) and 408 passing yards (7.56 average per attempt).


So far, Illinois’ defense has allowed 492 rushing yards (5.2 average per attempt) and 507 passing yards (7.68 average per attempt). However, there are multiple players that have the potential to dominate.

It all starts up front, with two returning defense end starters in Newton and Randolph. The duo, nicknamed the “Law Firm” were named preseason All-Americans. Newton led the team with 14 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hurries, and two fumble recoveries last season, and he already has eight tackles, two tackles for loss, and two sacks. He is considered to be a first-round selection in the 2024 NFL Draft. Randolph, in the meantime, had 53 tackles, including 13 tackles for loss, and one interception. So far, he has eight total tackles this season.

TeRah Edwards, who had 14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a sack last season, lines up next to the duo. Bryce Barnes, Denzel Daxon, and Sed McConnell make up the rest of the defensive line’s primary rotation.

Tarique Barnes, Gabe Jacas, and Seth Coleman are Illinois’ primary linebackers. Barnes has nine total tackles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries, and one sack this season. Jacas and Coleman have seven and five total tackles, respectively.

Illinois has a new-look secondary now that Witherspoon, Martin, and Sydney Brown are in the NFL. Tahveon Nicholson, Tyler Strain, Xavier Scott, and Clayton Bush should make up the primary crew instead. Safety Matthew Bailey could start on Saturday, as he is expected to return after an injury sidelined him the first two weeks of the season. He could be a significant piece to the group, as he had 10 tackles, three interceptions, and one fumble recovery last season.

Special Teams

Caleb Griffin is 1-for-1 in field goal attempts. Meanwhile, Hugh Robertson, a native of Melbourne, Australia, is the team’s punter. On the other end of the kick, Williams and Bryant handle punt returns and kick returns.

Your ad blocker is on.

Please choose an option below.

Sign up for our e-mail newsletter:
Support quality journalism:
Purchase a Subscription!

About the Author

Nolan Wick

Nolan is a third-year journalism major from Silver Spring, Maryland. He's an avid fan of all D.C. sports teams and Liverpool F.C. 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].

No. 6 Penn State Thumps Northwestern 41-13

A 17-point third quarter powered Penn State to a 41-13 win over Northwestern.

Penn State Football Struggles During First Quarter In Northwestern Win

Despite ultimately defeating the Wildcats in a blowout, the Nittany Lions were trapped in a shootout in the first half.

Penn State Football Proves It Can Overcome Adversity In Northwestern Win

Penn State overcame a sluggish first half with 31 points and an interception in the second.

Follow on Another Platform