Penn State (4-3, 1-2) vs. Illinois (3-4, 0-3)
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Beaver Stadium
Series: Penn State leads 16-4
Last meeting: Penn State won 35-7 last season
Coaches: Illinois — Tim Beckman, second season, 5-14 (26-30 overall); Penn State — Bill O’Brien, second season, 12-7 overall.
Television: ESPN (commentators: Beth Mowins, Joey Galloway, Paul Carcaterra)
Radio: WQWK 1450, WBUS 93.7 (Announcers: Steve Jones, Jack Ham)
The skinny: Defensively, Penn State and Illinois are on the ropes. The Nittany Lions have given up 147 points over their past three games while the Fighting Illini have surrendered 137. Both defenses will look to tighten up in this one while Penn State will try to forget an embarrassing 63-14 beatdown at the hands of No. 4 Ohio State. Illinois is coming of a 42-3 shellacking by Michigan State. There is still bad blood between these two squads. When the NCAA announced sanctions against Penn State in 2012, Illinois sent coaches to Happy Valley to try to lure players away. The Nittany Lions responded in kind and hammered Illinois in a particularly physical game last year. Illinois has been able to move the ball against weaker opponents, while Penn State will try to avoid the offensive mistakes that doomed a few otherwise solid drives against the Buckeyes.
Fighting Illini player to watch: Josh Ferguson is as versatile a player as the Illini have on the roster. The sophomore running back is leading the team in rushing with 52 yards per game and is also the team’s leading receiver, also with 52 yards per game. His five touchdowns also lead the team. He figures in on gimmick plays, too. Last season Ferguson tossed a 22-yard touchdown pass against Penn State for the Illini’s lone score.
Nittany Lion to watch: Quarterback Christian Hackenberg took a beating last week against the Buckeyes. He left the game with a sore throwing shoulder after taking four sacks and seven hits, and throwing two interceptions. Hackenberg gets another favorable matchup against a lackluster Illinois pass defense. The Illini are giving up 238 yards per game through the air and have surrendered 14 touchdown passes. Hackenberg has practiced this week and will start, but whether he’s still feeling the effects of last week’s mugging remains to be seen.
Key matchup: The Penn State defense needs to put on a strong performance after three lackluster outings. The secondary will have to slow down Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who needs just 70 yards to move into the No. 2 spot on Illinois’ all-time passing yardage list behind Juice Williams. Scheelhaase, a four-year starter, has been impressive most of the time this year but his output — he’s throwing for 236 yards per game — has been largely wasted due to the team’s defensive ineptitude. The secondary will need to play physically as Illinois uses plenty of multi-tight end sets.