Penn State Football: Keys to a Nittany Lions Win over Illinois
Coming off a much-needed 24-13 triumph over Temple in Week 4, the Penn State Nittany Lions travel to Champaign to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday.
A win would give the Lions their third-consecutive victory and put the team above .500 for the first time in the Bill O'Brien era. Considering the hardships this young team has gone through over the past few months, getting a win in its Big Ten opener would be colossal for the recovering program.
Nevertheless, don't expect victory to come easily. Illinois seemingly gives Penn State a tough matchup every season and will undoubtedly look to atone for its 52-24 loss to Louisiana Tech last week.
For that reason, here's a look at some things the Nittany Lions must do to ensure victory in Saturday's matchup.
Matt McGloin: Continue Efficient Play
After a rough start to the season, McGloin has flourished in each of Penn State's last two contests.
The senior signal-caller completed 24-of-36 passes for 313 yards with a touchdown and an interception last week against Temple, just seven days after throwing four touchdown strikes in the Lions' win over Navy.
Credit for that improvement certainly goes to the young quarterback, but a ton of it goes toward head coach Bill O'Brien's system changes.
Never a particularly efficient passer, O'Brien recognized McGloin's deficiencies and catered the offense around short passes and simple reads.
Facing off against an Illinois team that gave up 52 points to Louisiana Tech and 45 to Arizona State, McGloin should be able set in the pocket and make his reads. Whether that ultimately leads to victory will be up to the quarterback's ability to follow scheme and avoid any unnecessary mistakes.
Feed Michael Zordich Early and Often
It's no coincidence that the Lions' two victories this season have come when feeding their senior fullback the ball. In accordance with the team's more conservative, pro-style offensive scheme, Zordich's straight-line, hard-nosed running is a perfect fit.
When paired with Curtis Dukes or Zach Zwinak, Penn State is able to pummel opposing defenders into submission, by grinding out small gains early, that eventually become drive-sustaining by the fourth quarter.
The latter portion will be vital against an Illinois defense—that despite struggling against the pass—has been very efficient against the run.
Establishing the two-headed attack early and not abandoning the run will help wear down the Illini defense, while not putting too much of an onus on McGloin.
Keep Ryan Lankford Out of the End Zone
Illinois' struggles offensively have been well-documented throughout the 2012 season thus far, but Lankford has been the one shining star.
Though most of his work has come with sophomore Reilly O'Toole throwing him the ball, the 6'0" junior has undoubtedly emerged as the team's best offensive weapon and remain a No. 1 target if incumbent Nathan Scheelhaase recaptures the job.
For the season, Lankford has caught 16 passes for 243 yards, which is unspectacular until considering his yardage totals are nearly double any other Illinois receiver. In addition, with four touchdowns, he is the only Illini skill position player that has more than two touchdowns thus far.
The Lions defense has done a fantastic job at stopping opposing offenses in 2012. To keep that trend moving in the right direction, they will need to focus on stopping Lankford from making any big plays on Saturday.
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