A date with the Illinois has hardly meant a sure-win for Penn State in recent years, as the Nittany Lions are 3-2 against the Fighting Illini in the past five years and barely squeaked past them, 10-7, a year ago.
And this year, the Nittany Lions are a weakened side, as many of the team's top players transferred to other schools after the NCAA sanctions took effect in July. So it isn't out of the question to think that it will be Illinois who will be celebrating a win in its Big Ten opener.
Still, after a rocky start to the season Penn State have won two straight and aren't to be taken lightly. This one promises to be a true Big Ten battle. Let's take a closer look at this clash of 2-2 teams.
Where: Memorial Stadium Illinois, Champaign, Illinois
When: Saturday, September 29 at 12 p.m. ET
Betting Line: Illinois (-1.5), according to Bet Online
Penn State Injuries (via USA Today)
T Bill Belton, Ankle Probable
DE Pete Massaro, Undisclosed, Questionable
RB Derek Day, Shoulder, Questionable
T Donovan Smith, Leg, Questionable
LB Nyeem Wartman, Knee, Out Indefinitely
Illinois Injuries (via USA Today)
WR Darius Millines, Ankle, Questionable
OL Graham Pocic, Knee, Questionable
DB Supo Sanni, Shoulder, Questionable
DB Steve Hull, Shoulder, Questionable
Penn State players and fans are a bit annoyed with Illinois coach Tim Beckman and his staff, after it became public knowledge Illinois pursued several of Penn State's players after the NCAA levied sanctions against the Nittany Lions in July.
Beckman didn't break any rules—the NCAA said opposing coaches could contact Penn State's players and those players could transfer without losing a year of eligibility—but folks in Happy Valley aren't exactly thrilled with Illinois' actions, either.
Don't be shocked if this one gets a bit chippy.
Top 25 Implications
Illinois has lost to Arizona State and Louisiana Tech this season. Penn State has dropped games to Ohio and Virginia. The last thing these teams will be cracking is the Top 25 this year.
What They're Saying
As Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune writes, Illinois needs to limit the big play if it hopes to have success moving forward this season:
[Illinois head coach Tim] Beckman was concerned about several long plays by Louisiana Tech and quarterback Colby Cameron, who threw touchdown passes of 27, 78, 21 and 38 yards.
"We have got to play better in the back end, and we've got to create more help for our corners so they're not put in one-on-one situations," Beckman said.
Defensive tackle Akeem Spence said the issues started with players being out of position and weren't due to a lack of effort.
Meanwhile, Mike Canzoneri at PennLive.com has been surprised by the play of quarterback Matt McGloin:
Matt McGloin looks like a completely different quarterback this year. He is spreading the ball around and making some good choices. One could turn this into a "Let's bash Jay Paterno" comment, which is definitely isn't meant to be. Sometimes a different system or a coach makes the difference for a player. Darryl Clark and Michael Robinson seemed to excel with Jay Paterno and Galen Hall. It seems that this may be true with McGloin, Charlie Fisher and Bill O'Brien.
Penn State Player to Watch: Allen Robinson, Wide Receiver
Penn State's struggles early in the season and the team's battle to put scandal behind them and succeed in the face of crippling NCAA sanctions may be the main storylines surrounding the program in 2012, but Robinson has very quietly been one of the best receivers in college football this year.
After four games, the sophomore has 29 receptions (tied-ninth in the country) for 404 yards (sixth) and five touchdowns (tied-fourth). We already know that Illinois has given up a fair amount of big plays this year, so don't be surprised if Robinson beats them deep on more than one occasion.
Illinois Player to Watch: Nathan Scheelhaase, QB
Beckman announced on Monday (via the Chicago Sun-Times) that Scheelhaase would remain his starting quarterback despite being yanked from the team's loss to Louisiana Tech. Beckman claimed he had been taken out of the game due to injury concerns.
Still, that announcement came a day after Beckman told reporters (via the Chicago Tribune) that all players, including quarterbacks, must compete for starting positions.
So if Scheelhaase struggles early against Penn State—he lost an interception and fumble to Louisiana Tech, initially thought to be the reason he was pulled—don't be surprised to see Reilly O'Toole make an appearance.
Juggling quarterbacks is never good on game day, so Beckman will be hoping Scheelhaase plays at a high level on Saturday. If he doesn't, it should be a long day for the Fighting Illini.
Key Matchup: Penn State Front Seven Against Illinois Rushing Attack
The strength of this Penn State team is in the front seven, and the Nittany Lions would like nothing more than to put the game in the hands of Scheelhaase or O'Toole and force whichever quarterback ends up with the majority of the snaps to win the game through the air.
The Penn State defense hasn't let the team down too drastically this season—they're allowing just 15.3 points per game—but if they allow Illinois to have success on the ground, they could be in trouble.
The Nittany Lions struggle against fast-paced, spread-based offenses, but I don't think Illinois has the personnel to beat them in that regard. So this game will come down to the battles in the trenches, and I'm not betting against the Penn State defensive front seven in that regard.
Penn State is ripe for the picking in the Big Ten this year in my opinion. Unfortunately, Illinois doesn't have the talent to take advantage of the opportunity. Penn State gets the win, 21-13.
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