Penn State (6-4, 2-4 Big Ten) hits the road for its final away game of the regular season and will play Illinois (4-6, 1-5 Big Ten) at Memorial Stadium on Saturday at noon. Which team has the edge position-by-position?
It’s been a season full of growing pains and individual struggles for a group of youngsters trying to find their way for Penn State. The Nittany Lions have seemingly turned a corner, however. Having experienced pieces Donovan Smith and Miles Dieffenbach back together has definitely helped. So has the flexibility provided by do-it-all junior Angelo Mangiro. Wendy Laurent, though a bit undersized at 6-foot-2 and 284 pounds, has played solidly at center for the Nittany Lions. Illinois hasn’t gotten much push up front and hasn’t protected well at all. The Illini are averaging one more rushing yard per game (104) than Penn State but the Nittany Lions have been much better of late. The improvements in pass protection for the Nittany Lions have been evident, too. The Illini are also battling injuries up front. Right guard Ted Karras is out for the season with a torn ACL and MCL and left tackle Simon Cvijanovic is dealing with a shoulder injury that kept him on the sideline last week. Advantage: Penn State
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Wes Lunt will play in his second game since breaking the fibula in his left leg on Oct. 4. He’s got a big arm and gives Illinois the best chance it has to win and make plays downfield. He was among the Big Ten’s passing leaders when he went down with his injury and shouldn’t be taken lightly. The emergence of a viable running game should only help Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, who posted his third-straight completion percentage less than 50 percent. Hackenberg possesses a good football IQ and his issues seem to be confidence-related. He looks like a quarterback who’s taken all of the 37 sacks Penn State has allowed. Advantage: Push
Illinois’ Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young have just one 100-plus yard rushing game between them. That came seven games ago when Ferguson carried 14 times for 190 yards with two touchdowns against lowly Texas State. Neither back has had much room to run but both, Ferguson especially, can burn with blocking in front of them. Ferguson is one of just two active FBS players with more than 1,500 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards, so he can catch the ball, too. He leads the team with eight touchdowns. Penn State’s Akeel Lynch is getting better each week and has really improved his pass blocking. He can break long runs inside and to the edge. Meanwhile, Bill Belton shook off an early fumble — he may have been down but camera angles were not kind to the Penn State senior — to rush for a solid 92 yards despite missing all of the second quarter last week. Advantage: Penn State
The Illini use a lot of multi-tight end looks and will likely do so against Penn State. A pair of 240-plus pound tight ends Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse, at 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-6, respectively, bring size to the receiving corps that includes leading touchdown-getter Geronimo Allison (6-foot-4). Mike Dudek gets lost in coverages in a good way. He leads the team with 51 catches for 787 yards. Both of Penn State’s top two wideouts have outperformed their Illini counterparts. DaeSean Hamilton continues to be Penn State’s top receiving option and was open in the end zone early last week. Geno Lewis, a workhorse early in the season, has caught more than four passes just once in the last six games. Jesse James is good for at least one big catch a game it seems. Kyle Carter has disappeared and has just four catches for 32 yards over the last six. Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall continue to work in the rotation for Penn State. Advantage: Push
Penn State’s rotation continues to feature nine players and oodles of talent. Youngster Parker Cothren has made the most of his reps and has had the opportunity to play next to Austin Johnson on a few snaps lately. Anthony Zettel has mixed in with the twos, playing next to Tarow Barney and Tyrone Smith to add flexibility to Sean Spencer’s line groupings. Brad Bars and Carl Nassib have been serviceable reserves to Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan. Bars, who tore his Achilles’ last season, is coming off his most effective game yet. Illinois mixes up its personnel groupings and sends a handful of different types of players at quarterbacks. Tackle Austin Teitsma and end Jihad Ward each have two sacks and are the team’s top two tacklers up front. DaWuane Smoot is a massive end-linebacker hybrid type who has six tackles for loss and 21/2 sacks. Advantage: Penn State
The Nittany Lions avoided a major injury when Brandon Bell was able to return to last week’s game after suffering an apparent upper body injury. It’ll be interesting to see if Penn State coaches opt to use more of true freshman Jason Cabinda, who has been solid when he’s been in. Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman continue to have fantastic seasons and pace the defense with their aggressive, physical play. Wartman has been close to a few sacks on numerous blitzes and has largely missed out due to athletic quarterbacks slipping away. Hull leads the Big Ten with 11 tackles per game. Second to Hull? Illinois’ Mason Monheim. The Illini weakside backer is coming off a monster game versus Iowa that saw him make 15 tackles from his outside position. Monheim was on the initial Butkus Award watchlist. Hull wasn’t. Go figure. Advantage: Penn State
Christian Campbell and Grant Haley have opened eyes with their quality special teams play all season. They turned in their best defensive performances with an interception apiece against Temple. Haley scored a touchdown on his pick. They’re just two more weapons in a secondary that features veterans Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas and true freshman Marcus Allen. All are sound tacklers, have played well in coverage and possess startling closing speed. Jesse Della Valle showed off his under-the-radar athleticism with a late interception last week. Illinois safeties Zane Petty and Taylor Barton are both in the top 10 in the Big Ten in tackles per game and haven’t gotten much help up front. Cornerback Eaton Spence is the group’s most experienced player. The Illini have allowed 17 touchdowns and have just four interceptions. Advantage: Penn State
Illini punter Justin DuVernois is one of the nation’s best fourth-down options. He’s blended power and consistency well and has 17 punts of 50 yards or more. Illinois’ placekicking has been terrible, however. Taylor Zalewski and David Reisner have combined to hit just two of six field goals. Sam Ficken blows both of them away. He’s made at least two field goals in all but two of Penn State’s games including two games in which he’s nailed four kicks. Penn State punter Daniel Pasquariello has been better since the Nittany Lions abandoned their directional punting strategy. Advantage: Penn State
Illinois is banged up, has lost five of its last six games and Tim Beckman is 1-10 in November at the helm of his current team. Meanwhile, James Franklin is 12-3 in the same month as a head coach. Illinois must win or it will be eliminated from the bowl picture. If the Illini turn this into a postive motivator, they could be dangerous. Penn State is 3-1 away from Beaver Stadium, however, and is on the uptick as much as Illinois is trending doward. Advantage: Penn State