After a great 6-0 start to the season, the Fighting Illini (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) are on a two-game skid and facing one the their biggest challenges of the year Saturday. They travel to one of the toughest stadiums (Beaver Stadium) in the country to square off against Big Ten Conference Leader Penn State (7-1, 4-0 Big Ten).
This is a pivotal game for Illinois, and could likely set the tone for the remainder of the Illini season. Penn State is undoubtedly the favorite in this game, but I wouldn't count Illinois out just yet.
Here are five keys to the game if the Fighting Illini want to put an end to their two-game losing streak and come out victorious against the No. 21 Nittany Lions.
The Illini lead the Big Ten in rushing yardage per game (204.2 yards/game) since Zook took the reins in 2005.
Illinois’ rushing attack got off to a hot start this year, averaging 226 yards per game through the first six weeks. Since then, the Illini are averaging just 118 yards per game.
There’s no doubt that the Ohio State and Purdue defenses have played a part in Illinois’ lack of rushing the past two weeks, but if the Illini hope to get back in the win column, they need to get back to doing what they’ve always done best—running the ball.
Illinois has turned the ball over 15 (nine fumbles, six interceptions) times thus far, which ranks 90th in the country.
Penn State ranks 13th in the nation in takeaways with six fumble recoveries and 12 interceptions (18 total).
Turnovers were arguably the difference in the game against Ohio State, as they turned the ball over deep in their own territory on two separate occasions. For a team that has struggled to score the past two games, they cannot afford to give up scoring opportunities by way of turnovers.
To put it lightly, if Penn State running back Silas Redd has big game, the Illini are in trouble. Redd has been impressive to say the least. He has 869 yards (108.6 per game) so far in 2011. That’s good enough to rank him eighth in the nation in rushing yards.
More importantly, Redd and the Penn State rushing attack seems to be getting better each week. He is averaging 141.5 yards per game through the last four games and has played a major role the Nittany Lions' success.
Illinois’ rush defense has done pretty well so far this season, holding its opponents to 101.9 yards per game and are ranked 17th in the nation. If the Illini continue to do what they've been doing on defense, they should be in pretty good shape come Saturday.
It’s no secret that special teams play a vital role in each game. Games can often times be won or lost depending on the performance of special teams.
Illinois is among the worst in the country in special teams. It ranks worse than 100th in kick returns and punt returns, which severely hinders its ability to gain good field position. Additionally, it ranks worse than 100th in the nation in net punting and kickoff yardage as well, hampering its ability to pin opponents deep.
On the other hand, Derek Dimke is a perfect seven for seven on field goals and a perfect 26-26 kicking extra points. In a game that might come down to the wire, Dimke could be the difference.
The Illini have been held scoreless through the first three quarters in each of their last two games. On both occasions, the Illini tried to mount comebacks late in the fourth quarter but it was too late. If Illinois is going to contend with Penn State, it needs to move the ball early and often.
Last week against Purdue, the Illini were held to 128 total yards in the first half compared to 238 yards in the second half. They can’t afford to dig themselves a hole against a stingy Penn State defense that ranks eighth in the nation in total defense.
On the other side of the ball, Illinois gave up 229 yards to Purdue in the first half while holding the Boilermakers to 75 yards in the second half.
The Fighting Illini need to get out of the gates quick and showcase the powerful offense that we saw in their first six games. If they can play a complete game against Penn State, they have a chance to hand the Nittany Lions their first conference loss of the season. On the contrary, if they come out flat again, it will be a long day for the Illini.