Penn State Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Illinois
Finally, it's Big Ten football.
Penn State heads into Memorial Stadium to take on the Fighting Illini in their first conference game of the season, coming off two solid wins against Navy and Temple.
This is where coach Bill O'Brien and his staff will begin to prove just how stable this team is after all the off-field problems of the past year. It's a bit of a statement game for the Nittany Lions, who have been trying to prove that they are still strong despite losing stars like Silas Redd and dropping seemingly easy games in the early going.
Illinois comes into this game at 2-2 as well, but have been torched defensively of late. Each team is still trying to unify, and this game should go a long way towards that goal.
So, what does Penn State need to do to head back to Happy Valley 1-0 in conference play? Take a look.
1. Illinois Can't Contain the Spread
The best thing Penn State has going for them on offense is their passing game.
The last thing Illinois wants to face on defense is a good passing game.
The Illini got torched for 284 yards and four touchdowns by Louisiana Tech senior quarterback Colby Cameron last week. Cameron needed just 22 attempts to do so, as the Bulldogs ran away with a 52-24 win.
Louisiana Tech featured a spread offense, something the Nittany Lions have used at times this season but don't feature prominently. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin has been on a roll early this season, tossing over 250 yards per game and accounting for all 11 offensive scores in some fashion.
PSU's best bet is to spread out the Fighting Illini and get the ball in the hands of their playmakers, like sophomore wideout Allen Robinson, quickly and continually.
The faster they can establish the spread, or at least something similar, the sooner they will control the game.
2. Bill Belton Returns
The Lions opening day backfield starter is set to return for the first time since he hurt his ankle against Ohio in the season opener. (via SB Nation Philly)
It's unclear just how much the sophomore will play, but the team seems confident he'll provide an immediate impact.
Belton doesn't just provide solid running skills—he also may be their best backfield receiver. He snagged three passes for 16 yards. Only senior Michael Zordich has more (6 receptions for 64 yards) and he's had much more playing time.
Expect Belton and Zordich to get a pretty even workload at least early in the game, until either Belton gets comfortable or one of them gets hot. Either way it can only help their chances, right?
3. Ride the Momentum
While Penn State has won two straight against mediocre teams (Navy and Temple)—and it's easy to say they aren't big wins—you can't take away the value of those victories.
Teams see the Lions as a sitting target, and McGloin and company couldn't afford an 0-3 or 1-3 start to the season if they wanted to prove they were a legitimate team.
They're beginning to establish their offense, and the defense has stepped up big time, allowing just 20 points in the past two games. Plus, getting Belton back is a big help, as it should help stabilize the backfield if he can stay healthy.
O'Brien's squad has an added chip on its shoulder heading into this game, though. Illinois coach Tim Beckman openly sent his staff to recruit from Happy Valley immediately following the NCAA sanctions, creating some hostility between the two sides.
While O'Brien won't say to the public that it adds fuel to the fire, you better believe that locker room will be buzzing before the game with revenge in mind.
4. Contain Jonathan Brown
Junior linebacker Jonathan Brown is a force, to put it mildly.
He's already on the watch list for five national awards this season and has tallied 26 tackles (including sixth-ranked five tackles for a loss) and 1.5 sacks.
Last year, he recorded 108 tackles as just a sophomore, including 11 in a hard-fought game against the Nittany Lions. In that game he also had 2.5 TFLs and one of his six sacks of the season, while forcing and recovering a fumble.
Penn State's line has done a solid job keep McGloin upright this season, and it will be imperative that they continue to do so. They'll have to find him before every snap and make sure he stays out of the backfield as much as possible.
If he can break through the line once or twice in the first few PSU possessions, that could very easily spell trouble for them for the rest of the game. The Lions can't afford to let him get going early.
5. Get off to a Fast Start
Penn State holds the series record between these two schools at 15-4. And while the Fighting Illini don't have a winning record at home, they do have three victories in Champaign, and have won two of the past five meetings—overall, a noticeable improvement.
Regardless, Penn State isn't what it was, and while the past two weeks have been good for team morale, this is a serious test for them. The offense needs to keep the pressure on the Illinois defense especially, and if they dictate the tempo immediately, that doesn't bode well.
The other key will be getting ahead early to silence the crowd. These are conference rivals we're talking about. The fans are going to be loud and in Penn State's face (especially after the scandal). The Lions can't give them any reasons to be louder.
Look for McGloin to try and get things rolling quickly and settle the team in early. If that happens, the defense should follow suit and keep the Illinois offense in check.