Illinois, Penn State battle up front could determine winner of crossover tilt
Who: Illinois vs. Penn State
When: Saturday, 12 p.m. ET
Where: Beaver Stadium, Penn State
Spread: Penn State -6
TV: ESPN 2
Matchup to watch: Penn State D-line vs. Illinois O-line
Sound broad? Well, consider this. Big Ten Network blogger Brent Yarina pointed out that Penn State ranks first in the nation in sacks (31) while Illinois has allowed the fewest amount of sacks of any team in the B1G (8). Obviously, something will have to give. No defensive end in the country is getting after the quarterback like Carl Nassib. He, Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel are three of the conference’s best at getting off the ball and applying backfield pressure. One of the biggest concerns for Illinois coming into 2015 was whether or not it could keep Wes Lunt protected and healthy. The Illini have done that so far, but Lunt hasn’t had to worry about a line as strong as Penn State’s. There will also be pressure on freshman tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn — assuming Josh Ferguson is out again — to pick up the Penn State pass rushers. The Illini offensive line will also need to prevent Penn State’s athletic front from getting their hands up and tipping balls at the line of scrimmage. If they start doing that, the turnovers could start piling up.
Thing I’m excited to see: More of the Penn State receivers
The Lions finally displayed their upside on the outside last week. The adjustments that were made by the likes of Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis were impressive. Christian Hackenberg showed a lot of faith in his wideouts on some of those jump balls. That’s a good sign for this offense, which is still searching for an identity. Hamilton hasn’t been targeted nearly as much as many expected coming into this season, but he could be in line for a big day against the Illinois secondary. Wisconsin’s Alex Erickson, who has a similar possession receiver skill set as Hamilton, carved up Illinois for 10 catches and 177 yards from scrimmage. Look for the Lions to try and follow a similar blueprint with Hamilton.
Number to remember: 278
That’s how many rushing yards per game the Lions allowed in the last two contests. If that was the season average, that would put Penn State fourth-to-last among FBS schools against the run. Compare that to the 117 rushing yards the Lions averaged in the previous six games. Part of that was the fact that they had to face J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott in Columbus, but the 241 yards allowed to Maryland was disappointing. You can bet Bill Cubit knows that. With the way Penn State rushes the passer, Vaughn should get plenty of work. Wes Lunt isn’t nearly as mobile as Barrett or Perry Hills, both of whom ran all over the Lions. It’ll be interesting to see if the lack of that dimension changes Penn State’s fortunes against the run.
Prediction: Penn State 28, Illinois 24
I don’t think the Lions are able to get into the backfield at the rate they’re used to. Illinois held Joe Schobert and the relentless Badger defense to just two tackles for loss and zero sacks. But I don’t think the Illini offense is able to make enough plays without Ferguson. Saquon Barkley will bounce back and fuel the Lions with a few long runs to keep the Illini defense off-balanced. Penn State bests its 2014 regular-season win total and gets a nice boost heading into a home stretch against Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State.