Penn State Football

5 things to watch in Friday’s Penn State-Illinois game

Penn State wide receiver KJ Hamler runs downfield during a game against Kent State Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018 at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State wide receiver KJ Hamler runs downfield during a game against Kent State Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018 at Beaver Stadium. psheehan@centredaily.com

The No. 10-ranked Nittany Lions (3-0) kick off their Week 4 matchup against Illinois (2-1) at 9 p.m. Friday in Memorial Stadium.

Here are five things you should keep an eye on. (Since it’s a late, 9 p.m. start, you can find the result and complete coverage at centredaily.com and in our e-edition, as well as more coverage in Sunday’s newspaper).

Red zone riches

In James Franklin’s mind, if a team is settling for field goals in the red zone, “That’s going to come back to get you beat at some point.”

Thankfully for the Nittany Lions, they haven’t had that issue in 2018.

Penn State has the second-most red-zone touchdowns in the country with 15, trailing only Texas Tech’s 17. But the Red Raiders are actually less efficient than the Nittany Lions, finding the end zone on 17 of 21 trips (80.9 percent). Penn State has settled for a field goal just once, hitting at a 93.8 percent touchdown clip.

The Nittany Lions’ success has a lot to do with their rushing attack. Twelve of the 15 scores have come on the ground, six from quarterback Trace McSorley. The fifth-year senior’s reads have been spot-on, giving way to Miles Sanders on a couple late scores against Appalachian State. Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne’s decision to use “12 personnel” — an extra tight end in favor of a wideout — has helped establish the ground game in tight, too.

“The best teams, typically, in red zone performances are the ones that run the ball the best,” Franklin said. “So I think that’s helped.”

Smith’s signal-caller

Well-traveled quarterback AJ Bush should be back for head coach Lovie Smith and Illinois on Friday. Bush, a graduate transfer, was named the starter in the preseason, accounted for 329 total yards (190 passing, 139 rushing) in the season opener against Kent State and suffered a hamstring injury in Week 2. He did not play in last week’s 25-19 loss to South Florida.

However, Franklin and the Nittany Lions have to “prepare and assume” that the former Virginia Tech and Nebraska signal-caller will be good to go.

If not, it will be M.J. Rivers under center. The freshman was accurate against South Florida, completing 20 of 29 passes (69 percent) but for only 168 yards and no touchdowns.

Reid’s return?

It seems like veteran cornerback John Reid will return to the field Friday.

Reid — who missed all of last season with a knee injury — started Week 1 against Appalachian State, but did not play in the fourth quarter or overtime. Days after Penn State’s close 45-38 win, Franklin said Reid had some “rust” to shake off — but he hasn’t had the chance to do that after missing the Nittany Lions’ blowouts of Pitt and Kent State.

In Reid’s absence, sophomore Tariq Castro-Fields has performed well opposite Amani Oruwariye. Castro-Fields — who saw time last year as a true freshman and stood out at Michigan State — might still start against the Illini.

But expect Reid to see time, even if it’s just at nickel corner.

Kick return battle

After another 52-yard return last weekend, it feels like KJ Hamler is close to breaking one for a touchdown. But it will be tough against the Illini.

As Franklin noted in his presser, Illinois kicker Chase McLaughlin has a “really strong leg.” Not only has McLaughlin hit a field goal of at least 50 yards in each of the Illini’s opening three games, he also doesn’t allow returners much at all. He ranks ninth nationally in touchback percentage (16 of 18, 88.9 percent).

Of course, we know how Hamler feels about taking knees in the end zone. He was thinking about it before breaking free for 52 yards against App State, changing the face of Penn State’s young season.

Might he test the Illini’s coverage team? Or will McLaughlin keep “The Human Joystick” contained?

Illinois’ eye for turnovers

Franklin believes that “no doubt” the biggest factor in Friday’s game will be turnovers.

Illinois — while owning a 4-22 record in conference play the past three years — has at least one takeaway in each of the last 17 games. The last time Smith’s squad didn’t force a turnover was Nov. 12, 2016, at Wisconsin. And this year, Illinois is one of 14 FBS programs and the only Big Ten team without an interception thrown.

“That’s going to be the storyline of the game,” Franklin added. “That’s what they’re doing a really good job of.”

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