Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's big clash against the Illini.
The Blitz was one of the most popular features at the old PSU Playbook, the grass-roots site which was a big part of the entities that united to create FightOnState.com back in 2004. Though the name of the site changed, we kept right on blitzing.
The idea behind The Blitz? Former Playbook scribes (and current FOS staffers) Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal provide a fans' eye breakdown of the upcoming game. They discuss and debate pertinent issues, matchups and injuries, and — of course — provide their predictions. They also take an overview of the entire weekend in college football.
Like a pair of (undersized and very slow) outside linebackers, they pin back their ears and get after it. Sometimes they come through with big hits, other times they miss. But they always enjoy themselves.
ND: The Lions are reeling from a tough road loss to Ohio State. There is no better foe for the Lions to face than the Illini. Tim Beckman’s team is seeking their first conference win since they beat Indiana on October 8th in 2011. No game in the Big Ten is a “gimme” but the Lions could use the confidence boost that the Illini should provide if recent history is any indicator.
MH: The loss was brutal, but the Lions have to put it behind them and focus on an Illinois team that has been struggling for quite some time. Penn State needs a solid win to take into the homestretch of the season so the Lions need to come out firing on all cylinders in this one.
Who: Illinois at Penn State
When: Saturday, November 2 at 12:00 pm ET, 9:00 am PT
Where: Beaver Stadium in University Park, PA
Series: Penn State leads 16-4
Line: Penn State favored by 10 points
OTHER BIG GAMES
ND: There is not just a ‘big’ game but a HUGE game in the Sunshine state this weekend. Miami averted near catastrophe against Wake Forest last weekend. Coach Al Golden needs to get his kids focused on the epic showdown against Florida State. The Seminoles have launched to national champion contenders behind the arm of Jameis Winston. I still think that the reason that the Seminoles are legitimate has more to do with their offense than their freshman QB. Miami’s physical ground game will be a challenge for the Seminole defense, which is what makes this game so exciting. I like FSU to pull out the win but I think it will be a close one.
MH: That should be a good one. I’m interested to see how No. 21 Michigan stacks up against No. 22 Michigan State in East Lansing. We all know that Michigan has been teetering all season, losing to Penn State and getting scares from Akron, UConn and Indiana. MSU has an impressive defense, which should pose an interesting test for Devin Gardner and his offense.
ND: Mark, PSU has had two open dates this year. And, well, I’m taking an open date on my upset special. The games are all pretty straightforward this week and I’m not spotting any real upsets on the docket. I think Iowa has a real shot at making the Wisconsin game interesting but their offensive anemia makes me nervous to call that one out as an upset special. So, I’m going to do a little self study, work on fundamentals and spend some time of the family this weekend and will return to picking upsets next week.
MH: I had a decent time with my upset calls this season thus far. This time I am going with No. 18 Oklahoma State knocking off No. 15 Texas Tech. Yes, TT is at home, but OSU’s high-flying offense should make this interesting. The Red Raiders are coming off tough loss to Oklahoma, and should be motivated, but I am not sold that they’ll just bounce back in this one.
ND: According to Bill O’Brien, Christian Hackenberg is cleared to participate on Saturday. He has not been limited in practice and is not wearing any sort of protective apparatus on his shoulder. The focus in this game will be the running game. Illinois has one of the worst rushing defenses in the nation so the Lions should be able to find run the ball at will. The question will be how much will Zach Zwinak will see more carries or not. I think Bill Belton proved again that he is not only very good at running the ball but has demonstrated a real knack in pass protection. The key for Christian Hackenberg is to pull the trigger sooner. Plays are available to him but he’s waiting a touch too long and that is allowing defenders to converge on receivers or for pressure to finally reach him in the pocket. All of this will improve as the season wears on and, especially, when he has a chance to go through a full year of drills and practice. Allen Robinson continues to put amazing numbers en route to another Richter-Howard B1G Receiver of the Year trophy. The Lions will throw the ball but the ground game is where the most damage will be done.
Defensively, the Lions have to regroup. The defensive line continues to be stymied, the linebackers are regularly out of position and the defensive backs are, at times, not within pumpkin toss of a wide receiver. DaQuan Jones has been the only consistent playmaker for this defense and that’s proving to be not enough. At this point, the Lions need to find ways to control the bleeding. Hackenberg and the offense will put up points so the defense just needs to find a way to make the occasional stop or two so that the Lions can win. The Illini’s offensive scheme will get the Lions into space, which means that tackling will be center stage. Plus, Ohio State gave the country the blueprint for beating Penn State – throw quickly to the WRs and then pound the middle with the run when the linebackers start cheating to the perimeter.
MH: Personally, I can’t see the PSU staff shifting back to Zach Zwinak as the lead horse in the running game. I think he is more than capable of serving as a lead blocker, if the coaches would opt to use him that way. Bill Belton has shown he can carry the load and is a smart, hard-nosed runner. As you said, Christian Hackenberg has to nail down his mental clock – shave off a few seconds. Holding onto the ball has resulted in more than a few sacks and has thus killed some key drives. He has the tools and talent to put drives together, but he cannot continue to make mental mistakes that result in sacks, or worse, fumbles. I think Robinsons could have a huge game against Illinois, but I also like the tight ends in this one and think the mismatches could really give PSU an edge. Also, I expect Brandon Felder will have some major opportunities and I thought he played pretty well against Ohio State for the most part.
The Lion defense when from an impressive showing against Michigan to a horrid one in Columbus. I still believe that the secondary is focused too much on man coverage, which put them at a disadvantage against OSU’s speed, but could be fine against Illinois. I still the zone looks help to cover gaps in the secondary. The PSU front line failed to get a consistent push up front, which was also instrumental to the squad’s struggles. The Illini offensive line is not nearly on par to the Buckeye’s, but they PSU defensive front has to get a good push to disrupt or at least offset the pocket. As you mentioned, Nirav, tackling needs to improve. We’ve been saying this all season, but there are no excuses for the fundamentals to look as weak as they have this late into the season.
SCOUTING THE OTHER SIDE
ND: Nathan Scheelhaase is one of those players that you just swear must be on his 8th year of eligibility. But, this is finally his last year. He has been much more focused on throwing the football than scrambling around. Oddly enough, he has not developed a single target that he likes to go to. RB Josh Ferguson has had some big games catching the ball but then has gone nearly silent in the last two weeks. Likewise, WR Ryan Lankford has had two 100-yard receiving games but then also has several games where he has only caught one ball all game. Unfortunately, for Illinois, Lankford broke a bone in his shoulder and will be gone for the year. The bottom-line is that the Illini have an erratic passing game that is mostly focused on quick throws in open space and they are now missing a key target. On the ground, the Illini distribute the ball between Ferguson, who is the slasher, and Donovonn Young, who is the bruiser. When you add in the mobility of Scheelhaase, the Illini have a decent running attack. That is if their offensive line could block for them. If you remove their non-conference opponents and only look at the Big Ten portion of their schedule, the Illini are 10th in the conference in total offense at just under 300 yards per game.
Defensively, it doesn’t get much better for Tim Beckman’s kids. Beckman’s squad is one of the worst in the country at stopping the run. They are 219 yards per game on the ground. The only other BCS AQ school that is worse is Indiana. Jonathon Brown leads the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks. Meanwhile, Taylor Barton has the team’s only interception on the season. The Illini are a work in progress on defense and should provide the Lions with a good opportunity to refine their offensive attack and get plenty of reps in.
MH: The Illini do have some dangerous running weapons, particularly in Young, but as you said, their offensive line has struggled with opening up lanes. That doesn’t mean PSU’s front four can sleepwalk through this game though. The Illini will look to piecemeal drives together with the run game and I expect that Scheehaase will try to go up top to shock the secondary. He doesn’t have a consistent go-to target, but he has several receiving options that, if they decide to show up mentally, could really make some big pickups and give the Illini some momentum.
Bill Belton should see this game as a huge opportunity. He nearly managed 100 yards against OSU on the road, so if he picks up from there he’s poised to have a big day at home against Illinois. The Illini defense have often struggled with their tackling which could play into Belton and his bag ‘o moves to pick up extra yardage. I suspect we’ll see the Lions look to exploit the run challenges of UI’s defense and then let Hackenberg show off his arm if the Illini opt to stuff the box.
MATCHUP TO KICK BACK AND ENJOY
ND: After the nightmare that Braxton Miller provided for the Lions, is there really a QB versus lineback matchup that any fan would truly enjoy? Nathan Scheelhaase has not run as much this year as he has previously but he is always a threat. And, after seeing how Devin Gardner from Michigan and Braxton Miller torched the Lions, one has to believe that Scheelhaase will be given a green light to run whenever he wants. We’ll see how the Lions adjust and if the linebackers can make better reads and take better angles than they did last week.
MH: I think the matchup against Bill Belton vesus Illinois’ front seven, eight or nine should be interesting. Belton has shown he can push the ball up and will fight for extra yardage. If the offensive line for PSU can get on their blocks and seal some edges it could really open up things for Belton and the ground game.
KEYS TO THE GAME
ND: If the Lions settle down and play fundamental football, there is no reason that they should lose this game. The key to the game is come out with energy and focus. Illini is not a good football team but neither is a flat Penn State team.
MH: I think this game comes down to Penn State getting pressure and a push up front. When they can’t move the pocket it spells disaster for the secondary. They have to force Scheelhaase to make some quick decisions and ultimately mistakes to trip them up and generate opportunities.
ND: The Illini are just what the doctor ordered. The Lions stumble early but dominate late. Tim Beckman continues to seek his first conference win while the temperature on his seat starts to get hotter.
Penn State 31, Illinois 17
MH: Illinois last Big Ten win was over two years ago. Given this and the fact the Illini tried to kick Penn State while they were down, I expect the Lions to be fired up for this one.
Penn State 37, Illinois 20
Until next time,
Fight On State!