October 7, 2010

Preview: Illinois at Penn State

NR AP / 2-2, 0-1 BigTen @ PSU
NR AP 3-2, 0-1 BigTen
10/9, Noon ET, ESPN2 Wk 5 - L, 24-13 vs OSU Wk 5 - L, 24-3 at Iowa

Penn State returns to the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium for this week's homecoming game against the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Penn State Huddle

This game is by no means a gimme. Illinois played tough an elite Ohio State team last week in Champaign, using defense and a scrappy offense to lead the Buckeyes and stay in the game until the final two minutes.

But Illinois offers what should be a relatively easier challenge for Penn State--not that the Illini will be a bunch of pushovers. Illinois is by no means Iowa, probably is about even with Temple (though, it's possible the Owls are better), and is sure as hell not in the same galaxy as Alabama.

So, let's get to it...

The Illinois Defense

Illinois runs a traditional 4-3 base defense, but isn't a straight cover-3 team like Penn State. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning is very good at what he does, proving it on the field so far in 2010. Illinois was one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten the last two seasons, but come into this game a respectable 5th in the Big Ten in total defense (322.2 ypg) and 4th in points allowed per game (18). This is an active front seven, often using linebacker blitzes to add pressure on the pocket and force throws.

Opponents have been held to only a 75 percent red zone scoring rate, 44 percent of those trips ending in touchdowns. That could be terrible news for Penn State, which comes into the game only averaging a 67 percent red zone scoring rate, a paltry 33 percent ending in touchdowns. If there is one area the Illini can win big, it's in the red zone. But on 3rd downs, the defense hasn't been as successful, even if that stat isn't quite as critical as preventing red zone scores. Illinois is allowing opponents to convert 38 percent on 3rd down.

PSU Pass Offense vs. Illinois

Oddly enough, there has been a team worse than Penn State at forcing turnovers. Illinois finally picked off its first two passes of the season, last week again Ohio State. And while the Illini are holding opponents to a respectable 192 yards per game through the air, that's not exactly a number to worry about. Cornerback Tavon Wilson and Justin Green lead the team with four passes defended, while safety Henry Trulon came up big with both interceptions last week against the Buckeyes. Playing a big part in the pass defense is the pass rush, with Corey Liuget constantly getting pressure on the quarterbacks, coming into this week with four tackles for loss, a sack, and two quarterback hurries.

Rob Bolden has seen pass defenses much worse than this, and pass rushes much, much worse than this. I won't go so far as to say this will be easy. Nothing has been easy this season for the Penn State offense. But if Bolden and the offense prepared for this game as if it was Alabama or Iowa all over again, we might see a significant increase in production through the air.

Impact Spot: Dropped Passes... Before I could even hit the keyboard this week with a post on this topic, Black Shoe Diaries beat me too it, with clips and everything. There is nothing more frustrating than a receiver--a very good receiver--dropping a pass in a big game, on a big third down. It happened at Alabama. It happened again against Iowa. It must stop this week. Unless there's pass interference, or a risk of death from an incoming defender, there is no valid excuse for dropping a ball that hits a receiver's hands or chest.

PSU Rush Offense vs. Illinois

Sometimes a defensive statistic like rush yards allowed can be misleading, specifically in college, where sacks count against a team's rush totals. Illinois comes into the game with a rush defense (130 rush ypg) that is statistically only slightly better than Penn State (118 rush ypg). But what happens when you take away the sack yardage lost by Illinois' opponents? That total soars to 145 yards per game. The Illinois run defense wore down a bit at the end of the Ohio State game last week, allowing the Buckeyes to grind out a long touchdown drive on the ground to seal the win.

Penn State, meanwhile, has only had one actually decent rushing day, against a Temple team that fielded the worst FBS-level run defense Penn State has faced so far this year. The Nittany Lions come into this game 10th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (138), and could have trouble again against an active Illini defensive front.

Impact Spot: Evan Royster... Here we are again. It's sad to say, but things aren't getting any better on the offensive line. Granted, Iowa has the best defensive line in college football this year, but there's not much to lead me to believe that Royster will have much help this week. So it's up to him to run on every carry like he did on that third quarter 21-yard run against the Hawkeyes, where he broke about four tackles and stayed on his feet twice when it looked like he would go down. Royster doesn't get very emotional, but this week, a little anger in his running may be in order.

The Illinois Offense

Penn State hasn't yet faced a run-spread offense like what Illinois produces each week. And that could be a good thing. The Illini attack plays to its "strength," the running game led by Mikel Leshoure. Yet, the thing is that not only is the Illinois run game far from powerful enough to lead the entire offense, the offense as a whole is absolutely the definition of sub-par, averaging 332 yards per game. That's worse than Penn State, meaning the Illinois offense is the worst in the Big Ten this season.

An advantage the Illini have is that they score points 100 percent of the time inside the red zone, something Penn State can't exactly match by a long shot. Worse yet, the Nittany Lions are allowing opponents to score 100 percent of the time inside the red zone. Although Penn State's opponents don't even get near the red zone often, when they do, they score points. It doesn't matter how effective your offense is between the 20s; it's about which team scores more points.

Illinois Pass Offense vs. Penn State

The weakest unit on the field Saturday will be the Illinois pass offense. Nathan Scheelhaase is a mobile quarterback who can throw on the run. But he doesn't throw all that often, and when he does, there's only a 54 percent chance it will be completed to the receiver. Scheelhaase is throwing for 122 yards per game, with a 3-to-4 ratio. His favorite target this season emerged last week against Ohio State, as Jarred Fayson caught eight passes for 83 yards. The problem with that is that accounts for half the passes Fayson's caught all season, and double the yards he had coming into the OSU game. A.J. Jenkins appears to be a more consistent threat, with 13 catches for 206 yards and two touchdowns (Scheelhaase's only two TD passes) this season. But to call anything in the Illinois pass game a "consistent threat" might be a big reach.

Penn State is giving up only 172.2 pass yards per game, even holding Iowa to 227 and Alabama to 229. Those two teams eased off the pass at the end of the games, as both led Penn State. But the Penn State pass defense has been very good in the final three quarters of its games.

Impact Spot: PSU pass rush/containment of Scheelhaase... This will be the first pure scramble-pass quarterback Penn State has faced all season. Penn State has to not only get pressure on him, but force him to stay in the pocket and throw. Allowing Scheelhaase to flush out of the pocket, with the option to run or throw, will doom the Penn State defense. Last week's pass rush was pretty bad when Penn State only rushed four, or even five. This week Penn State has to blitz, but be careful not to blitz Scheelhaase right out into the open field.

Illinois Rush Offense vs. Penn State

Mikel Leshoure had a four-game 100-yard streak broken last week against Ohio State, though he still finished close to that mark. Illinois averages about 200 yards per game rushing, which brings the Illini in at 5th in the Big Ten. From Scheelhaase comes 54 more rushing yards per game, while Jason Ford has 91 this season from his backup running back spot. Early against Ohio State, Illinois was able to move the ball on the ground, but wasn't exactly impressive. In fact, the Illini's 319 rushing day against Northern Illinois two weeks ago accounts for more than one-third of the team's total rush yards this season.

Penn State didn't have a terrible game against either Iowa or Alabama, taking the offensive talent on each of those teams respectively. But missed tackles were still a nagging problem against the Hawkeyes last Saturday night. It wasn't nearly as rampant as against Alabama or in the first quarter against Temple, but sloppy tackling was still a noticeable issue early in Iowa City.

Impact Spot: First Quarter Run Defense... Illinois doesn't have a potent, or very dangerous passing game. So this game comes down to stopping the run, and stopping it EARLY. Penn State can't afford to let Illinois get into a ground game groove in the first quarter, or even the first drive. The Illini live and die by the running game, meaning Penn State can quickly kill this week's opponent by simply playing aggressive, disciplined run defense from the first kickoff... not the fourth or fifth kickoff.

Special Teams

When you come into a game like this, where both offenses need a shot of adrenaline just to get a first down, field position becomes paramount to the victor's success. Illinois has one big advantage: the punting game. Anthony Santella has been booming punts all year, as the Illini rank 3rd nationally in net punting, while Santella has dropped six kicks inside the 20, with NINE punts going for more than 50 yards.

Penn State, though, has the overall advantage on special teams. While Illinois leads the conference in net punting, Penn State is still 4th and surrendering a conference-low six total punt return yards the entire season to date. On kickoffs, this is a double-advantage for the Nittany Lions. Illinois is 10th (18.33 ypr) in the Big Ten in kickoff return yardage; Penn State is 2nd (26.76 ypr). Also, on drives started following kickoffs, Penn State averages a starting field position at the 33 yard line; Illinois starts on average at the 25 yard line. That's an eight-yard advantage for Penn State on each drive.

Impact Spot: Punting... The last time Illinois came to Happy Valley, field position played a huge role in Penn State's homecoming win. This year, with two offenses that aren't exactly juggernauts, field position will again be key to victory for both teams. Penn State needs for Anthony Fera to find more consistency in his punts. Last week against Iowa, Fera launched a 70-yarder, but also a dud of a 12-yarder. Giving Illinois a short field will make this game much tougher than it already should be.

Two things that could really piss you off...
or make you really, really happy.

Red Zone Woes... For yet another week, we find ourselves in search of any semblance of life inside the red zone for Penn State's offense. If Penn State can come away with a few touchdowns inside the red zone, consider us pleased. But if we see another field goal fest, or plain old outright FAIL time and again, you can still rest assured, because obviously there's been something horrible done to the red zone gods which brought forth this terrible wrath upon the Penn State offense.

Pass Rush... Penn State couldn't get to Ricki Stanzi. We covered that already in the above sections. But I'm still categorizing this as a make-or-break flash point for the Illinois game. Penn State has never had much trouble getting to the quarterback, or at least pressuring him enough to make mistakes. But last week was just painful. Illinois doesn't have an offensive line like Iowa's or Alabama's, and Nate Scheelhaase is no Stanzi or Greg McElroy.


TeamPenn StateOpponents
1st Half4254
2nd Half5421
3rd Q230
1st Half6232
2nd Half2740
3rd Q77
Illinois has outscored opponents 62-32 in the first two quarters this season; but has been suspect in the second half, as opponents have outscored Illinois 40-27. The Illini's big weak spot comes in the third quarter, having only scored seven points all season long, while giving up seven to opponents. Penn State, on the other hand, is only slightly worse in the first half, with opponents outscoring the Nittany Lions 54-42; but Penn State has dominated the second half with a 54-21 scoring advantage. Unlike Illinois, however, Penn State has played its best football in the third quarters this season, outscoring opponents 23-0.

So if this game is close at halftime, or even a slight Illinois lead, the 3rd quarter trend for Penn State could come into play. The Illini can't finish games. We've seen this against Northern Illinois and Ohio State; even going back to week 1 against Mizzou. Conversely, Penn State tends to come alive late in the first half of games, and most definitely catches fire in the third quarter.

When games look close on paper, you have to find the little things each team does well, or not so well. The third quarter could be the deciding moment of this week's game.

Like last year, this game is coming on the heels of a disappointing loss to Iowa. Could we be in store for another surprising blowout win for the Nittany Lions? It's possible. You'll have to wait for tomorrow's staff picks for that kind of stuff.

Check out our LBU staff picks tomorrow for score predictions

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  1. I'm feeling pretty good about this game. I saw both commentators on one of the Big Ten network shows choose Illinois to win. That seems a little crazy to me, their QB has 489 yds passing through 4 games with 229 of them coming against southern illinois! I think our D should be able to handle them, lets hope our offense can get some points as well.

  2. Mike thinks...

    I am not very optimistic heading into this game. PSU has not demonstrated the ability to beat a significant team. Three things jump out at me as things I feel this team MUST imprve upon in the Illinois game.

    1.) Line play on both sides of the ball. Although pass protection has been very good, run blocking has been horrible. As for the D-Line, I am a firm believer that the talent we thought we had there is truly not there. It happens all to often...

    2.) Red Zone offense. This has been another weak point and I hope to see some different things in the Illinois game. I love Bolden, but why not let Newsome run some option plays to loosen up the defense in the red zone?

    3.) The lethargic starts we have seen in every game. If this team does not come out fired up and ready to play AT home, ON homecoming, and IN A MUST WIN GAME, then they never will this season. Where are the leaders? They need to step up.