Penn State may be favored big against Illinois but, if it wants to win, it still needs to dominate its matchups. Here are the key matchups to Friday night’s game that we think fans should keep a closer eye on:
John McGonigal: Illinois RB Mike Epstein vs. Penn State’s front four
James Franklin said the Nittany Lions are familiar with Mike Epstein, and they should be. If you flip on Illinois film, it’s hard to miss No. 26.
Epstein — who led Illinois in rushing last year as a true freshman despite missing the final seven games of the season due to a foot injury — slowly worked his way back into a groove this season. The tailback had only eight and nine touches in the Illini’s opening two games, respectively, but broke out with more opportunities last weekend against South Florida.
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On 19 carries, Epstein rushed for 113 yards and found the end zone on a 43-yard run in the Illini’s 25-19 loss. He also had five catches for 56 yards, including a 32-yard screen pass.
A week before, Epstein broke off a pair of 38-yard runs in Illinois’ 34-14 win over Western Illinois.
Through three games, the Florida native has averaged 7.61 yards per touch. Illinois has other options at running back, namely Reggie Corbin, who has averaged 6.5 yards per carry and leads the team with three rushing scores. But Illini coach Lovie Smith has been impressed with Epstein.
“Mike, the last couple of weeks, has really stepped up his game,” Smith told reporters on Monday. “He’s a good football player, whether he’s catching the ball and, of course, running the football. We’ll continue to lean on him.”
That being said, Penn State’s defensive line needs to show up. The front four did well against Kent State a week after being torched by Pitt to the tune of 214 rushing yards in one half.
Illinois runs a lot of counter and stretch plays, which requires discipline from the defensive ends and gap integrity on the part of Penn State’s tackles. Look at how Penn State’s front four reacts when Epstein gets the ball in his hands.
Josh Moyer: Penn State QB Trace McSorley vs. Illinois secondary
On paper, this looks as if this has “Advantage: Penn State” written all over it. And, OK, it does — because the Nittany Lions have the advantage in every aspect of this sure-to-be-lopsided game.
But this matchup is more of a wildcard than you might think.
Statistically, Illinois has one of the most miserable passing defenses in the country right now. It’s ranked No. 122 nationally by allowing 325.3 passing yards per game, including 411 yards against a South Florida QB making his third career start. But — and this is the key — the secondary has been plagued by injuries, suspensions and ejections the first three weeks.
Unfortunately for Penn State, that should all change this week.
Starting safety Bennett Williams and starting cornerback Nate Hobbs were both suspended for a violation of team rules but, according to The News-Gazette’s Bob Asmussen, they’re expected to return in time for Friday night’s tilt. Hobbs started 10 games last season as a freshman, and Williams had seven starts.
Just how valuable were those two? Hobbs made the BTN All-Freshman team. Williams was an ESPN.com Freshman All-American.
On top of that, starting CB Cameron Watkins was ejected in Week 2 and hasn’t played a full four quarters since the opener. And nickelback Sydney Brown was injured Week 2 and missed last week’s game. But both are listed in the lineup this week.
No, that doesn’t give Illinois the advantage. Not even close. But the disparity isn’t as strong as it would’ve been a week or two ago. This team had the nation’s No. 34 pass defense a year ago, and four of the Illini’s top-five defensive backs returned in 2018.
It’s no stretch to say that Trace McSorley is Penn State’s key to winning, and Illinois has the potential to put up as good of a fight — defensively — as it has this season. So, if there’s one matchup I’m watching, it’s this one.