The Penn State Nittany Lions are looking to get back into the win column when they host the Illinois Fighting Illini for a Big Ten cross-divisional contest on Saturday. Both teams are coming off of bye weeks, and each lost the last time they were on the field.
Even after falling from the ranks of the undefeated with a tough loss at Iowa, Penn State (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) is very much in contention for the East title and a spot in the conference championship game. Illinois (2-5, 1-3) is running out of chances to salvage its season and was shut out by Wisconsin in its last game.
The Nittany Lions have a commanding 20-5 edge head-to-head against the Illini and have won the past three meetings by an average of 38 points per game. Penn State does have a divisional showdown with Ohio State up next, but James Franklin's team knows it can't overlook Bret Bielema's Illinois squad.
Illinois at No. 7 Penn State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 23 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Penn State -24
When Illinois Has the Ball
Brandon Peters was pulled from the Wisconsin game two weeks ago with a head injury, which meant that Artur Sitkowski was called to duty again. But in the end, both men combined to complete just 11 of 34 pass attempts for 67 yards. If Peters is healthy enough to play, Bielema will have a tough decision to make as to who gets the start on Saturday. One offensive player who won't be available is running back Mike Epstein.
Out of action the past five games, Epstein has now been ruled out for the rest of the season, although the exact injury has not been disclosed. This is not the first time Epstein's season has come to a premature end due to injury, and it appears that he has played his last game in an Illinois uniform. He finishes with 107 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries (4.3 ypc).
Chase Brown leads the rushing attack with 414 yards and three touchdowns while averaging close to seven yards per carry. Josh McCray has gotten the most attempts (63, 5.3 ypc) while Reggie Love III is third on the team in both carries (42) and rushing yards (150). Illinois continues to lean on the run due to the struggles of the passing game, although Isaiah Williams (32 rec., 298 yds., TD) has been a reliable target.
The Illini have the daunting task of going up against a Penn State defense that is fourth in the nation in points allowed per game (13.8) and is holding teams to 313 yards per game (fifth in the Big Ten, 23rd in FBS). The Nittany Lions have been stingy against both the run (111.3 ypg) and pass (201.3 ypg), ranking fourth in the conference in both categories. Individual standouts on this side of the ball include linebacker and leading tackler Ellis Brooks (44 stops), defensive end Arnold Ebiketie (team-high 4.0 sacks), and safety Ji'Ayir Brown (3 interceptions, tied for second in Big Ten).
When Penn State Has the Ball
Quarterback Sean Clifford is having a strong season, but he left last week's loss to Iowa due to an undisclosed injury. Clifford has been practicing this week (with a knee brace), but Franklin has been non-committal about Clifford's status.
If he's unable to go, the duties will fall to either Ta'Quan Roberson or Christian Veilleux. Roberson relieved Clifford against the Hawkeyes and went just 7-for-21 for 34 yards with two interceptions against the Hawkeyes' stout defense. To be fair, Clifford also threw two picks before getting hurt, but he was responsible for one of Penn State's two touchdowns (four-yard TD run) and helped stake his team to a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter. After he left, the Nittany Lions managed just one field the rest of the way while Iowa orchestrated its comeback.
In three other games, Roberson, a sophomore, is 4-for-7 for 51 yards and a touchdown while Veilleux, a true freshman, has yet to get on the field. In the event that Clifford can't go, Penn State will need to get more from its ground game. The Nittany Lions are 11th in the Big Ten in rushing offense, averaging 129.3 yards per game. They managed just 107 yards on the ground against Iowa, led by Clifford's 36 on three carries. Keyvone Lee (team-high 204 yds., 5.4 ypc) and Noah Cain (team-high 67 att., 4 TDs) both need to step up their games to support whoever is at quarterback.
The good news for Penn State is that the lllinois defense may be just what the doctor ordered. The Illini are giving up the most yards per game in the Big Ten (429.1) and have been equally ineffective against both the run (164.4 ypg) and pass (264.7 ypg). Not helping matters is the news that linebacker Jake Hansen (32 tackles, 2 forced fumbles), the anchor of the unit, will miss the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery.
Even with the quarterback uncertainty, Penn State should face little resistance against Illinois. The Illini have their own offensive issues, and the Nittany Lions' defense can probably win this game by itself. The only questions here are who ends up getting the snaps for PSU, what will the final margin be, and how quickly will the Nittany Lions turn their focus to next week's showdown with Ohio State.
Prediction: Penn State 31, Illinois 14
Podcast: Previewing Week 8 + CFB Expansion + Washington State Coaching Search
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who 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.