Here’s something new—a Big Ten road game in which Penn State is a three-point favorite. Well, not so new. Didn’t come out too well the last time we had that situation, did it? Accordingly, let’s try not to underestimate Illinois (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten). They’re not the non-pugilistic Illini of yesteryear.
Are they still the “Fighting Illini” or just the Illini? Has the NCAA succeeded in cleansing their nickname and banishing their mascot, Chief Illiniwek? I don’t know, but see my commentary last year if you want some background on this ridiculous crapola. Last year’s game, by the way, wound up in the “W” column for Dear Old State, being homecoming and all. The final score was 26-12, but it was a lot closer than that score suggests.
Illinois head coach Ron Zook, after having been summarily run out of the Sunshine State, has done one helluva job of putting a team together at Illinois. They have an excellent running game and a good defense. Their weaknesses are the kicking game and the passing offense.
So, let’s start by predicting what Penn State’s offense will look like. Um, it will look pretty much like last week’s. There’s a difference, though. Illinois has a competent pass rush, and might be in Morelli’s face more than Michigan was. (It was amazing that our inept offensive line protected Morelli as well as it did, but that was more due to the fact that Michigan sucked than that our line performed above itself.) In any case, we’ll see the running game (or lack of same) featured once again, which pretty much means no offense until the second half. And if Morelli takes his usual six seconds to find a receiver to throw to, we’ll see a lot of rushes and sacks. (Can it really be called a “rush” if he’s sitting back there with his thumbs up his ass not seeing the field? But I digress.) So, plodding along, Penn State will either dig a hole for itself or exit the first half with a slim lead. Ho hum. Same old shit.
Meanwhile, Illinois’ offense is built around a serviceable running game. Juice Williams is a good option quarterback who can burn opponents with the run and Rashard Mendenhall is one of the top tailbacks in the Big Ten. Williams was a green freshman last year, and we kept him corraled, but Mendenhall was unstoppable, with 14 carries for 161 yards and a touchdown. Last week, he lit up Indiana for 214 yards, and he’s rushed for 536 yards thus far this season. He’ll be getting a lot of carries against Penn State, as Zook & Co. have undoubtedly watched the films of the Mike Hart ballet from last week. Of course, if they did, they’ve seen that Hart had to work hard to grind it out against the excellent Penn State front seven, and the same will apply to Mendenhall. The yards gained will not be easy ones, and he’ll need to have at least 100 of them to do enough damage to put this game in jeopardy. Williams, of course, is slippery and tricky, which can cause trouble if this defense doesn’t stay at home or overcommits. However, this Turkey thinks that the Juicemeister is in for a long, painful day.
To be honest, this game worries me, primarily because it is now clear that our offense sucks beyond mere suckage. At the Tuesday press conference, Paterno wouldn’t say whether Austin Scott would start—he was droning on about Scott having been patient and earning his chance to play. Well, hell, what does he have to do to un-earn that chance if three fumbles in two games doesn’t do it for him? So, we’ll see either Scott or Kinlaw doing the usual thing unless Illinois should happen to get lucky and score early. Illinois’ best hope is to shut down the running game, such as it is, to force Morelli to throw. (Never thought we’d be so weak at the passing game with big-arm Morelli and those vaunted receivers, did you? Hell, we couldn’t even blame last week’s screw-ups on the offensive line; Morelli underperformed all by himself.) This has the smell of a close, low scoring game, and I’m not even sure which way it will go. My opinion of our offense has fallen precipitously in the past couple of weeks, leading to a lack of confidence. Once again, I hope they prove me wrong.
And now, the Official Turkey Poop Prognostication, a regular feature of this column, and usually wrong. But what the hell—everyone makes predictions. We all know how that game works. You get it right and bragging rights accrue to you. You mouth off and let ’em all know how right you were. You get it wrong and you shut up. You disavow any knowledge of the prediction. You minimize your screw-up and move on. Anyhow, I can no longer predict any final scores in which Penn State’s point production gets out of the teens. The offense just seems that piss poor to me. So, here’s my no-risk prediction for this game. Penn State 16, Illinois 12. (I hope the damn offense can manage to score 16 lousy points—I mean, even Syracuse put 20 on Illinois! Sheeeeeit.)