It's the final week of the Big Ten's 2020 college football regular season. And while the Big Ten Championship Game will take center stage in Indianapolis, there are several other games scheduled. One of those features two teams looking to presumably finish the season on a high note. The Illinois Fighting Illini (2-5) will hit the road for the final Saturday this season to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions (3-5).
Both teams have had difficult seasons, to say the least. Penn State started by losing its first five games of the season, the first time that's happened in program history. But since then, the Nittany Lions have won three straight by dispatching Michigan, Rutgers, and Michigan State. PSU started the season with much promise and expectations after ending last season with a big victory in the Cotton Bowl but now needs to win two straight (including a bowl game) to finish .500.
The Illini also had some expectations after posting their first winning season since 2014 last year. Instead, Illinois lost its first three games to Wisconsin, Purdue, and Minnesota by a combined score of 117-45. They seemed to bounce back after reeling off consecutive road wins at Rutgers and Nebraska, but the following game against Ohio State was canceled due to COVID-19 issues on the Buckeyes' end. After that, Illinois blew a second-half lead in their loss to Iowa, then lost to Northwestern for the sixth straight time (a new record).
This past Sunday, the university relieved Lovie Smith of his head coaching duties after five seasons. Offensive coordinator Rod Smith (no relation) will coach the Illini on Saturday. Like many teams across the country, Illinois also had COVID-19 cases within their locker room, which will make capping their season off with a win even more difficult.
Illinois at Penn State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 19 at 5:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Penn State -14.5
When Illinois Has the Ball
Offensive guard Kendrick Green was named to this year's All-Big Ten team, while fellow lineman Doug Kramer received an honorable mention. Their efforts are a big reason why Illinois has the Big Ten's No. 2 rushing offense. Running backs Chase Brown (93 att., 510 yds., 2 TDs) and Mike Epstein (61, 360, 4) were also honored for their efforts. Quarterback Brandon Peters has thrown for 429 yards and three touchdowns this year (111.8 passer rating), and he's only taken four sacks, which is another credit to the work up front by Green and Kramer.
Peters' top downfield targets are wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (22 rec., 297 yds., 3 TDs, declared for the 2021 NFL Draft), and tight end Daniel Barker (16, 214, 1). Illinois will be taking on a Penn State defense that's been solid all year despite the team's struggles. The Nittany Lions are fourth in the Big Ten in total defense (335.8 ypg), fifth against both the pass (208.4 ypg) and the run (127.4 ypg), and sixth in scoring defense (28.5 ppg).
When Penn State Has the Ball
Wide receiver Jahan Dotson (46 rec., 695 yds., 6 TDs), offensive linemen Rasheed Walker, Michal Menet, Will Fries, and Mike Miranda, and injured tight end Pat Freiermuth (23, 310, 1) also received All Big-Ten honors this year. In addition, Freiermuth was also named Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year. They, along with quarterback Sean Clifford (1,598 passing yards, 14 TDs), and running back Keyvone Lee (414 yards from scrimmage), kept fighting through the struggles for this team every week. Despite its record, PSU ranks second in the conference in total offense (411.6 ypg), sixth in passing offense (247.1 ypg), seventh in rushing offense (164.5 ypg).
Statistically, Illinois is among the worst defenses in the Big Ten (451.1 ypg, 31.9 ppg), but the Fighting Illini are very good in other areas. They rank fifth in the league in sacks (13), fourth in interceptions (7), and second in forced fumbles (9). In other words, they'll put up a fight. And if a couple of big plays break their way, this could end up being a close game.
Illinois is 5-19 all-time against Penn State, and the Nittany Lions have won four of the last five meetings by a combined score of 175-64. The last time that the Illini defeated the Nittany Lions was back in '14 in Champaign. All of the momentum, right now, is on Penn State's side. And because of that, they'll successfully defend their home field. Penn State takes that momentum into bowl season while Illinois looks ahead to the future.
Prediction: Penn State 28, Illinois 17
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— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.