Illinois may be thankful to have a short week to prepare for their home game with Penn State this week. The Illini host the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten opener for both teams on Friday night, meaning Lovie Smith was forced to turn the page as quickly as possible after seeing his team squander a fourth-quarter lead in a loss to South Florida last week.
But moving on from that loss is not so easy when the opponent coming to your home stadium is one of the Big Ten contenders from the East Division and packs one of the conference's best offenses. Slowing down Penn State will be a tall order for the Illini, but they are off to a 2-0 start in their home stadium. Then again, this isn’t Kent State (whom Penn State just demolished last week; Illinois beat the Golden Flashes by seven in Week 1) or FCS opponent Western Illinois rolling into town.
Penn State at Illinois
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 21 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: Penn State -28.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Illinois defense could have a long night
Penn State will bring one of the Big Ten’s best offenses to the field Friday night, averaging 489.0 yards per game, third in the conference. The Nittany Lions are also averaging 53.0 points per game, a number only Ohio State edges among Big Ten schools (both are the only schools averaging more than 37 ppg). That does not bode well for an Illinois defense that ranks last in the 14-team Big Ten in total defense (allowing 480.0 ypg).
To go a step farther, Illinois is ranked 123rd in the nation in passing defense. This should be a big game for Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley.
2. Penn State’s receivers need to get on track
For as good as McSorley has been for Penn State, he still needs to get some help from his wide receivers. McSorley’s stats would look better if his receivers were not dropping as many passes as they have this season. KJ Hamler is Penn State’s leading receiver with 129 yards, but that is good for just 20th in the Big Ten receiving totals. It will be essential for Penn State’s Bandon Polk, DeAndre Thompkins and Juwan Johnson to leave this game with some confidence before a big home game next week against Ohio State.
3. Can Illinois play with discipline?
In a mismatch like this, it will be important for Illinois not to make any silly mistakes that could draw a penalty flag. Penn State’s offense has been bailed out a couple of times already this season by getting a free first down when the Nittany Lions failed to convert a third down due to a penalty on the opponent. Illinois has been flagged for an average of 7.7 penalties per game, inflated with 14 penalties against Western Kentucky two weeks ago. The Illini will not be able to afford to give Penn State any free yards in this game if the Illini are to make this interesting and think about pulling an upset.
Penn State has been one of the more disciplined teams in the Big Ten, with the second-fewest penalties per game (5.0) in the first three weeks.
Penn State is clearly the better team than Illinois in so many areas that it is nearly unthinkable that Illinois stands much of a chance to even keep this one close. Penn State has struggled to flex some muscle early in games this season, and that trend has a chance to show up this week in Penn State’s second road game of the season. But at some point, the horses at Penn State get going and the talent gap between the two teams should show in the second half if it has not already. Penn State should be in excellent position to go into their big home clash with Ohio State next weekend with a clean 4-0 record.
Prediction: Penn State 45, Illinois 17
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.