Penn State Football

Penn State vs. Illinois: Who has the edge?

Quarterbacks

After an excellent start to the season, true freshman Christian Hackenberg has had a few tough games. He was inaccurate to start against Ohio State, missing a few wide open targets. As the game wore on, he didn’t get much help as Penn State’s pass protection betrayed him. Although Hackenberg has tossed seven touchdowns since the Big Ten slate began, he’s completing just 53 percent of his passes and has tossed four interceptions and fumbled twice. Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase doesn’t turn the ball over much and is an accurate passer. He’s completing 65 percent of his throws this season, including 62 percent in the past three weeks, and his pass efficiency rating of 151 is third in the Big Ten among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. He’s been a bright spot for an otherwise bad Illinois squad for a number of seasons, but has yet to throw a touchdown pass in Big Ten play this year. Advantage: Illinois

Running backs

Josh Ferguson is Illinois’ do-it-all athlete, but the sophomore tailback has only managed 52 yards per game on the ground and leads the team in that category. As a team, the Illini are only averaging 139 yards on the ground this season. For Penn State, Bill Belton has emerged as an every-down back who is capable in every facet — pass protection, short yardage and is a receiving threat, too. Akeel Lynch got his most extended action of the season at Columbus after playing sparingly against Indiana and not getting in against Michigan. Zach Zwinak’s fumble issues are troubling. Advantage: Penn State

Wide Receivers/Tight ends

Illinois’ receiving corps took a hit when senior Ryan Lankford broke a bone in his shoulder last week. The injury will sideline him for the rest of the season and leaves Illinois without one of its most experienced wideouts. Steve Hull and Miles Osei will likely get more looks in the offense alongside Martize Barr and Spencer Harris, who have combined to catch 40 passes for 372 yards. But the Illinois wideouts have only hauled in four touchdowns this season. Meanwhile, tight ends Jon Davis, Evan Wilson and Matt Lacosse have combined for seven scores. Ferguson leads Illinois with 25 catches. Penn State’s Allen Robinson has exceeded the combined output of Barr, Harris and Hull by 225 yards. Brandon Felder continues to be another reliable option for Penn State. Nittany Lion tight ends factored heavily into the Ohio State game plan, too, and are still due for a big game. Advantage: Penn State

Offensive line

Penn State’s front five — especially the tackles — were much maligned inside the Horseshoe, where pass rushers consistently beat Donovan Smith, Garry Gilliam and Adam Gress. The Penn State offensive line was still able to open holes in the running game, however, as Belton churned out 98 yards — the most by any rusher against the Buckeyes. Illinois, meanwhile, has rushed for just 97 yards over its last two games for just two yards per carry. Illinois is pretty young up front — only right tackle Corey Lewis is a senior. Illinois has given up 18 sacks this season. Ouch. Advantage: Penn State

Defensive line

Illinois hasn’t been able to generate a consistent pass rush this season, with only seven sacks. Meanwhile, the Illini have been dreadful against the run. They’ve allowed 893 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns in three Big Ten games. Penn State couldn’t stop Ohio State but has been fairly solid against opposing rushing attacks this season. In four wins, the Nittany Lions are allowing just 84 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, Penn State was able to generate a pass rush against Ohio State but couldn’t bring Braxton Miller down, although they hurried him and flushed him from the pocket. Defensive end Anthony Zettel has really come on strong in the last three games. Advantage: Penn State

Linebackers

The Fighting Illini depend a lot on their linebackers to cause havoc in a 3-4 look. But the lack of a pass rush, an inability to stop rushing attacks and an inability to get off the field have doomed the Illinois defense. Still, Jonathan Brown and Mason Monheim are No. 1 and 2 in tackles with 76 and 61 respectively. Brown and Monheim have also combined for 121/2 tackles for losses. Brown leads the team with 21/2 sacks. Penn State continues to rotate a cast of linebackers. Ben Kline and Brandon Bell contributed in Columbus while Glenn Carson absorbed a nick to a finger. This game will give Penn State’s linebackers a chance to bounce back. Advantage: Penn State

Defensive backs

Penn State’s secondary has been up and down while Illinois’ has been mostly down. The Illini have just one interception and start underclassmen at cornerback in freshman Darius Mosely and sophomore Eaton Spence. Penn State shuffled its secondary last week and will field a similar lineup Saturday. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas will man the corners while Malcolm Willis and Jesse Della Valle will likely start at safety. Ryan Keiser is available to help out at safety but still isn’t 100 percent after undergoing surgery to repair a broken hand before the Michigan game. Advantage: Penn State

Special teams

The Nittany Lions have struggled to cover kickoffs and haven’t returned a kick or punt for a touchdown this season. Meanwhile, the Illini have one of the more dangerous return men in the country in V’Angelo Bently, who is averaging 31 yards per kick return and 16 yards per punt return. Bentley took a kick return 100 yards for a touchdown earlier this season. Illinois field goal kicker Taylor Zalewski is seven for 10 on the season. Advantage: Illinois

Coaching/Intangibles

Both teams are among the worst in the Big Ten in turnover margin. Penn State is minus-seven and Illinois is minus-five. Illinois is averaging 48 penalty yards per game while Penn State has cleaned up its play of late, averaging just 30 yards in infractions per week. Bill O’Brien hasn’t lost back-to-back games since the first two weeks of last season. Tim Beckman has yet to win a Big Ten game as coach and his teams have given up an average of 43 points in five Big Ten road games since he took over for Ron Zook. Advantage: Penn State

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