All week, Penn State has been scaling back its practices after facing dual-threat quarterbacks in its last two games.
The defense, full of young players aside from a veteran-packed defensive line, has showed fatigue not only in yardage amassed by the last two opponents — almost 900 yards, over 500 of which were rushing, alongside 68 points — but in poor tackling execution, as well. Penn State has yet to get a break, as the Nittany Lions’ bye week isn’t for another two games.
“We’re at a point now where we’re a little bit banged up,” head coach James Franklin said on Tuesday. “We have to be smart and get our legs back. We’ve got to be fresh and we’ve got to be physical.”
To start, Illinois has 21 players with starting experience who are either juniors or seniors. They’ve also recently had their bye week, and field a team that Franklin called “big, strong and physical.” Illinois is also pass-heavy, and will likely test the stamina of Penn State’s pass defense, which currently sits at No. 10 in the country.
Led by interim head coach and full-time offensive coordinator Bill Cubit (Tim Beckman was fired just before the Illini’s season opener as allegations surfaced that he was influencing medical decisions made regarding hurt players, and pressuring players to play through injury), Illinois won four of its first five games, including a win over Nebraska, but dropped to undefeated Iowa and, last week, fell to Wisconsin.
Last year, the Nittany Lions fell to the Fighting Illini on a last-minute field goal on the road, but look to improve a so-far perfect record at Beaver Stadium this season with a revenge-game against the visitors.
Three Keys to See
Penn State’s receivers and the long-ball-savvy arm of Christian Hackenberg bailed out the team against Maryland last week on the road.
The Terps loaded the box and effectively shut down Saquon Barkley (relative to his past performances), who was held to 67 yards and an early touchdown. They stuck to their cover-zero, cover-one scheme throughout the entirety of the game, thus exposing their defensive backs and daring Penn State’s receivers to make contested catches — which they did.
It can be assumed that, if necessary, the Illini would be comfortable placing that amount of confidence in their own secondary. They boast some of the most effective ball-hawkers in the conference and are tied with Ohio State and Iowa for the Big Ten lead in interceptions, with nine. Two of their defensive backs have three apiece, while safety Clayton Fejedelem ranks No. 2 in the conference with 10.6 tackles per game.
Illinois allows an average of 195.4 passing yards per game, and 149.4 rushing yards; but the most intriguing stat may be its third-down defense — the Illini allow third down conversions just 27.3 percent of the time, and Penn State’s the nation’s third-worst offense on third down, managing to convert just 27.8 percent of third downs this season.
Penn State will also be maneuvering its offensive line to deal, yet again, with injury. Starting center Angelo Mangiro was shifted outside to guard after Andrew Nelson went down with an apparent injury, and backup Wendy Laurent was brought in at center. Penn State gave up five sacks last week to a blitz-heavy Terps attack in light of the shifting, and has to allow Hackenberg time to deviate from the short game — the junior quarterback has showed inconsistency in the short, quick routes game and again, and has uniquely proved most effective when given time to hurl the deep ball.
Ah, the collective sigh of relief from Penn State’s defense at not having to face a third consecutive dual-threat quarterback.
Franklin has described trying to defend a dual-threat as “a pain” these last two weeks, but Penn State shouldn’t expect any true reprieve from veteran signal-caller Wes Lunt.
Lunt, a junior, was actually recruited by Franklin and his staff a few years ago, and transferred to Illinois from Oklahoma State. He has already thrown for 1,702 yards and nine touchdowns with just three interceptions, and is statistically the hardest quarterback in the Big Ten to bring down, with just seven sacks in seven games.
“He really, really knows how to throw,” said Franklin of Lunt. “He's not a runner, but he does a nice job extending plays and buying time; throwing the ball away and doing things like that. He's got a real good feel for it. It will be a real challenge.”
But Penn State’s defense leads the nation by a healthy gap in sacks, with 31 in eight games played. Defensive end Carl Nassib himself leads the nation as well, with 13.5.
“I think one of the real challenges of this game is their pass protection, which is one of the better in the conference,” said Franklin. “A combination of them protecting him and him getting rid of the ball, and our defense and our defensive line in getting pressure on the quarterback - it's our strength versus their strength. So it will be an interesting challenge.”
Penn State’s special teams, while still shaky, did not give up any explosive plays to one of the nation’s top return men in Maryland’s William Likely.
“It wasn't with big, booming punts that had a lot of hang time that we could cover,” said Franklin. “It was kind of a combination of things, low rugby kicks, punts that did had some hang time. The one time we were backed up, Daniel [Pasquariello] banged it and had a punt of over 50 yards and no return. That was dramatic, as well, so good things there.”
The Nittany Lions will have to keep the ball away from Fejedelem, as well, who has returned a punt for a touchdown this season and is a highly capable, strong runner.