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Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Penn State Nittany Lions Preview and Prediction

Christian Hackenberg

Christian Hackenberg

Penn State will face its third interim head coach of the season this weekend when Illinois rolls into Happy Valley. For the second straight weekend, Penn State must prepare for a team playing under an interim, with Bill Cubit doing the honors for the Illini. Cubit has managed to keep the football program afloat in what could have easily been turned into a dumpster fire of a season. At 4-3, Cubit may have already done enough to make a solid case to keep the job in 2016, but right now Cubit is just working on getting Illinois to a bowl game. A road trip to Penn State could prove to be a must-win game for the Illini.

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Penn State is already bowl eligible and begins working on improving its overall profile for a shot at a New Year's Day bowl game. Mathematically, Penn State is still in contention for the Big Ten East Division crown, but expectations and goals should be reduced at this point in time. Playing on Jan. 1 would still be a huge accomplishment for James Franklin and Penn State. To get there, they must exact some revenge against the Illini.

Illinois at Penn State

Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV: ESPN2

Spread: Penn State -5.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley vs. Illini run defense

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Freshman running back Saquon Barkley put on quite the show against Ohio State two weeks ago, and Maryland took notice. Last week against the Terrapins, Barkley was held to fewer than 100 yards despite Penn State attempting to get him to pile up some big numbers. Illinois should be expected to have the same strategy against Barkley and the Nittany Lions. Illinois has only allowed five rushing touchdowns all season long, so Barkley and Penn State will have to earn anything they get on the ground this week.

2. QB Showdown: Hackenberg vs. Lunt

The NFL draft stock for Penn State's Christian Hackenberg may have dipped a bit this season in the eyes of many, but when he is locked on with his receivers he still has the ability to do some damage. Last week Hackenberg completed just 13 of his 30 pass attempts, but he racked up over 300 yards and three touchdowns on the throws that were completed. Hackenberg had an abysmal performance against Illinois last season, and he will look to rebound from that in a big way.

Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt did not have a spectacular performance against Penn State last year either, completing just nine of 17 pass attempts for 58 yards. Lunt and the Illini did, however, pick up a late-season win to help push them into the postseason. Like Hackenberg, Lunt has some skills that really shines when he is locked on. Neither quarterback may have a big showing, but each play a critical role in their team's success this weekend.

3. The revenge factor?

How much stock do you put into the revenge factor, if any? Penn State should have a bit of a chip on its shoulders this weekend against Illinois. The Illini were one of the teams to hand Penn State a loss last season, and it may have been the ugliest of them all. Illinois clipped Penn State, 16-14 with a late 36-yard field goal. Penn State and Illinois may not be known as stingy rivals, but there is still some leftover animosity between the two after former Illinois head coach Tim Beckman and his staff set up camp in Happy Valley after Penn State was hit with NCAA sanctions a few summers ago. Perhaps that has tailed off a bit now, especially in light of Beckman no longer being in charge of the program, but Penn State should be looking forward to greeting Illinois in Beaver Stadium regardless this weekend.

Final Analysis

Prepare for an ugly game when it comes to offensive football. Neither team executed much well last season, and that could easily be the case once more this time around. Penn State's offense has been slow out of the gates numerous times this season, and Illinois has played some tight games. This should be the next one. The big difference in the game should be Penn State's Saquon Barkley. If Barkley can break loose against the Illini, Penn State could be celebrating another (likely ugly) win.

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Prediction: Penn State 23, Illinois 17

— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.