Nittany Lions to Host Illinois
Big Ten West Division powerhouse (or lack of same) Illinois (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) travels to Beaver Stadium to take on the mighty Penn State Nittany Lions (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten). Illinois has lost its past two games, to B10 West rivals Wisconsin and Iowa, after narrowly beating sad-sack Nebraska. Penn State, of course, is coming off a hotly contested 31-30 slopfest victory over Maryland.
Illinois’ other defeat earlier in the season was a 48-14 blowout loss to the North Carolina Tarheels, who are now 6-1. Otherwise, they beat a buncha cupcakes including a blowout over our own favorite patsy Kent State (52-3), intrastate rival Western Illinois (44-0), and a squeaker over Mid-Tennessee (27-25).
The past two Penn State-Illinois games were decided by a total of nine points. Last year, the Nittany Lions bowed to the Illini on their home turf, 16-14, on the cusp of hated former head coach Tim Beckman’s dismissal. In 2013, the game was at Beaver Stadium but it was played to a 17-17 tie in regulation, eventually ending with a PSU touchdown pass to Kyle Carter in overtime, followed by a Ryan Keiser interception on the subsequent Illinois possession. The Beckmanless Illiniweks no longer are grudge match material, as interim coach Bill Cubit ain’t no thang; however, there is plenty at stake for Penn State in this game — including a winning season for the good guys.
Yeah, six wins means bowl eligibility and gee golly wow the Lions scored 31 points on Maryland, so they should sail right on through placid seas of the Big Ten to arrive at a 9-3 season, right? Think again. These next four games are make or break games for that winning season, starting with this one. Furthermore, along with #1 Ohio State and #22 Temple, both prior losses, these will be the toughest opponents of the year. The boys better come out focused (yeah, right — noon start) and deal with Illinois first. In James Franklin’s favorite words, they have to go 1-0 this week. The boys cannot take any of the remaining games lightly.
The formerly fighting Illini rank 9th in the conference in total offense, just behind Penn State, but they rank dead last in rushing. In the Wisconsin game, Illinois was able to scrape up only 55 yards on 13 carries on the ground. Predictably, the Badgers dominated time of possession, albeit with quarterback Joel Stave sidelined early in the game. Meanwhile, the Illiniweks were missing their top runner Josh Ferguson, who suffered a shoulder injury in the Nebraska game but who could be back for the Penn State game.
Junior quarterback Wes Lunt is a Roethlisbergeresque passer at 6-5, 225, averaging 243.1 passing yards per game this year. He has 158 completions in 276 attempts for 1702 yards with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. Lunt and his receivers have provided Illinois with the third best passing offense in the run-happy Big Ten and 37th in the nation in spite of 40 dropped passes by various receivers. Lunt’s leading receiver, Geronimo Allison, is averaging 6.9 receptions per game, for an even hundred yards per game with three touchdowns this season.
Lunt has been sacked only seven times. Compare that with Christian Hackenberg’s 27 sacks and you might conclude that the Illinois offensive line provides a modicum more protection than Penn State’s Five Traffic Cones. However, they’ll be facing a Penn State defense that leads the conference in sacks. Something’s gotta give! Pass protection is probably the number one key to a potential Illinois victory, particularly if Ferguson is not available to play.
Penn State hasn’t seen much of Wes Lunt. As a freshman back in 2012, Lunt was the starting quarterback for the Oklahoma State Cowboys. He then transferred to Illinois, sitting out 2013 due to NCAA rules. Early in the 2014 season, he suffered a fractured fibula in his left leg during the Purdue game. By the time the Penn State game rolled around, Reilly O’Toole, who had been subbing for Lunt during the injury, got most of the reps when the ineffectual Lunt was pulled. Lunt left that game after going 8-17 for 58 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions, and having been sacked twice.
Defensively, the Illini stack up pretty well against the Nittany Lions, especially up front, so the Five Traffic Cones will need to play a good game. Franklin is changing the offensive line to employ the talents of its two centers. Andrew Nelson, who was injured last week, is listed on the depth chart as second-string with Brendan Mahon the starter at right tackle. Brian Gaia still shows up as starting right guard. However, now Angelo Mangiro is presumably starting at left guard, with Wendy Laurent at center. And, of course, the stationary Colossus of Rhodes, Paris Palmer, occupies the left tackle position. At least that is what this week’s depth chart reveals. From our experience with Franklin, we know that the actual game situation could be substantially different.
The Weks’ two competent defensive ends, junior Dawaune Smoot and senior Jihad Ward, are bent on sacking Christian Hackenberg. The Coneheads will have to work hard to prevent that.
Newgrass is Bluegrass
The turf in Beaver Stadium has been completely replaced, and this will be the first time the new Kentucky Bluegrass is tried under game conditions. Unlike when playing Rutgers, both teams will be playing on grass.
Listen to Your Turkey, Penn State
Here are my admonitions to this team, my five keys to winning, or at least making it look good.
- Show up for the first quarter. This is a noon start. We know how you love them. Well, come out fast and don’t suck! Show up!
- Show up for the third quarter. If you don’t have a lead by then, do what it takes to get one. If you do have a lead, don’t get complacent. Don’t sit on a lead. Play a good third quarter, one your mamas would be proud of. Don’t mail it in!
- Make some damn tackles. Our vaunted defense (VD) needs some oil to keep running at top efficiency. They’re great, but if they cannot make tackles, they ain’t so great. Here’s a shocker I wasn’t expecting: Penn State ranks dead butt-ugly last in the Big Ten in Red Zone defense. You get inside the 20 against our VD and you have a 91.3% chance of scoring. Fix it!
- Make some damn third down conversions. Nothing like a bunch of disjointed three-and-outs to keep your defense coming back on the field, exhausting them by the end of the game. Listen, guys, you’re dead last in the conference both in this category and in fourth down conversions by a considerable margin. Even Purdue and Maryland are measurably better. Fix it!
- Sack Lunt. If you guys are so great, Nassib, Zettel, et. al., then how about making this Turkey proud by sacking the guy who has the fewest sacks in the B1G. I challenge you to sack him three times in this game. Lunt has been playing well this year, so you need to throw a monkey wrench into that.
Dick Butkus is our football-themed alumnus of the week. He played linebacker at Illinois from 1962 through 1964, finishing his career with 374 tackles. He was one of three first round picks by the Chicago Bears in the 1965 NFL draft.
With the Bears, Butkus was selected to eight Pro Bowls, and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption “The Most Feared Man in the Game.”
The 72 year-old Butkus spends his time with charity work and the occasional acting stint, usually playing himself.
The forecast for Saturday calls for a high of 54° and a low of 45°, with a slight chance of some light precipitation. The weather won’t affect these guys as much as the noon start!
Official Turkey Poop Prediction
Recall that the line on this game was an affront to your dignity as a good Sanguinarian. Penn State opened as six-point favorites at home to beat the Illini. C’mon, WTF??? This is Penn State you’re talking about! We’re playing at home! Illinois couldn’t shine our shoes! Why… why… why… I remember beating them 62-14 a couple of years ago! They suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck and WE ARE!
Gamblers have only their wallets in mind when they do the betting that moves the line. The purest of motives is unabashed selfishness; it can never be questioned. With that having been said, the line has narrowed to between 4½ and 5½. They’re making it tougher to issue my blanket advice to never bet on Penn State to cover the spread.
The over/under remains 43. In conjunction with the spread, which we’ll call five points, this suggests an outcome on the order of 24-19 in favor of Penn State. Let’s see what I can come up with.
Hmmmm, looks good, feels good? Nope, that ain’t it. Looks bad, feels bad? Nah, that ain’t it, either. Looks bad, feels good? Yeah, dat’s it! I’ve got your diagnosis. Penn State 20, Illinois 17 — a repeat of last week’s slopfest but with lower scoring. Take the under.