No. 19 Penn State travels to Champaign, IL, this weekend to tangle with the youthful and athletic Illinois Fighting Illini.
Many observers are calling this a potential statement game for Illinois—and a potential trap game for the Nittany Lions.
The following are what I consider to be the impact players and key matchups in the contest, which will air at 12 EST on the Big Ten Network.
Offensive Impact Player: Juice Williams
While Williams isn't the Illini's most consistent player, he may be their most important—especially if Penn State is able to stop the run (a considerable challenge, as Illinois is fifth in the country with over 265 rushing yards per game).
If Juice gets loose and is able to pass to Kyle Hudson or fab freshman Arrelious Benn, the Nittany Lions will be in trouble.
Defensive Impact Player: J Leman
Leman's 147 tackles last season led the Big Ten, and he's on pace to get near that total again.
His incredible quickness, intelligence, and coverage ability rival that of James Laurinatis and Dan Connor. If Leman can keep PSU struggling on the ground, the Illinois secondary will be the only thing holding the Illini back from victory.
Offensive Impact Player: Rodney Kinlaw/Austin Scott
Whoever lines up in the backfield for the Lions will be the most important player on the field.
That's not to say that Anthony Morelli and the receivers aren't important—Penn State needs offensive balance to be successful in the Big Ten.
Redshirt freshman Evan Royster may be the wild card in this matchup. The Nitany Lions face a defense that allows just 87 yards per game.
Penn State Impact Defensive Player: Dan Connor
Dan Connnor has come up huge when Penn State has needed him.
Now he needs to make sure a spectacular linebacking corps, which also includes Sean Lee, Tyrell Sales, and Navarro Bowman, is ready to shut down the Illinois running attack.
Connor and Lee will also be asked to defend some of Illinois' slot receivers—and that might be the sticking point here. If Connor dominates, look for Penn State to dominate as well.
Three Key Matchups
1. Penn State's passing game against Illinois' pass defense—the 80th-ranked passing offense against the 50th-ranked pass efficiency defense.
2. Illinois' running game against Penn State's run defense—the fifth-ranked rushing offense against the sixth-ranked rushing defense. Something has to give.
3. Special Teams...
Illinois' speed vs. Kevin Kelly and Jeremy Boone—Boone is the Big Ten's best punter, and Kelly averages 68 yards per kick.
A.J. Wallace, Rodney Kinlaw, and Derrick Williams vs. Anthony Santella and Jason Reda—the Big Ten's best punt return unit may need a repeat of Williams' effort against Notre Dame to spark the Nittany Lions.
Penn State will struggle early against Rashaard Mendenhall, but will dominate in the second half.
Whoever starts at running back for Penn State goes over 100 yards, and Anthony Morelli throws two touchdowns. Illinois fights to tie it at 28 before Kevin Kelly wins it with a minute left.
Penn State 31, Illinois 28