The Illini travel to Happy Valley on Saturday for an 11am matchup against Penn State.
Orange and Blue News caught up with Nate Bauer from BlueWhiteIllustrated.com to get the inside scoop on the Nittany Lions.
There's a lot of well-deserved praise for how head coach Bill O'Brien has handled things at Penn State. How has O'Brien managed to keep things rolling in Happy Valley?
Nate Bauer: He'd be the first to say that keeping this program together, let alone competitive week-in and week-out, is due to the efforts of many, many people in and around the program. Starting with the heavy influence of the seniors from the 2012 team, managing to retain the majority of the talent in the face of the NCAA's elimination of transfer rules for a full year, along with the underclassmen that decided to stay in the face of a four-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions, plus the efforts of his assistant coaching staff, all had a significant role in the success of the program as it stands today.
That said, obviously, O'Brien himself is the anchor.
He's a charismatic, no-nonsense kind of guy that knows football and has been able to both succeed on the field and, maybe more important, in the realm of motivation and maintaining focus through the storm. The deck is still nearly entirely stacked against their success due to the NCAA's sanctions, but even with more than 25 fewer healthy initial-scholarship players this season, there's enough talent and gap-plugging to allow this team to still be competitive.
Tough game last week against No. 4 Ohio State. What happened, and what do the Nittany Lions need to do this week vs. Illinois to clean it up?
Bauer: Penn State didn't play a good game on either side of the ball, and against an Ohio State team that already had identified the blood in the water, it was really just a feeding frenzy. I don't think it's indicative of what Penn State is capable of for the rest of the season, but really just a clear pronouncement of how much better a fully-stocked Ohio State program is against a hobbled Penn State program just trying to stay competitive and win as many games as possible this season.
Illinois, obviously, is going to be a different quality of opponent than Ohio State and, as a result, I think some of the issues that existed defensively will at least be partially cleaned up and, even more likely, Penn State's offense should be able to respond positively against an Illinois defense that hasn't been very successful this season.
That said, if the Nittany Lions can't score points on Saturday, they're going to lose because Illinois is going to be able to produce, at minimum, a few scores against this Penn State defense.
Looks like freshman QB Christian Hackenberg (shoulder) is a go for Saturday. What does this very talented young quarterback bring to the field for the Nittany Lions?
Bauer: Hackenberg is an interesting study of expectations against reality and where the two converge. As the No. 1 pro-style quarterback prospect in the country for the Class of 2013, having already earned three Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards through seven games, he's really been quite impressive at times this season.
This isn't rocket science, but obviously he's had his share of issues this season, specifically in losses at Indiana and Ohio State, that I think demonstrate the ups and downs that come with a true freshman handling the signal-calling responsibilities. His game itself isn't complete - obviously - with a few much-needed passes in his repertoire that still need to come along, and when you throw in the limitations that he has in terms of options within Bill O'Brien's offense, and it's easiest to overlook the struggles and just focus on what it seems he'll be capable of in a couple of years.
In other words, the talent is there, it's obvious, and if he isn't already the best pro-style QB in the conference, he will be sooner than later under O'Brien's tutelage.
The passing game seems to be carrying the Penn State offense this season. What kind of scheme does O'Brien run, and who are some his playmakers on that side of the ball?
Bauer: O'Brien loves the passing game and, at times, it has gotten him into some trouble offensively this season. It's a straight-forward, pro-style offense. He's not running the option, he's not running the spread, it's drop back, read the defense and fire and, with Hackenberg fitting the mold to perfection, it's been mostly highly-successful.
Add Allen Robinson to the mix - certainly among the best receivers in the conference and more likely, in the country - and the Nittany Lions have a capable passing offense. That said, at times this season, the inability of the tight ends to get really involved in the offense this season has come as a bit of a disappointment to Penn State fans. It was considered one of the deepest units on the team heading into the season and, through the injuries of Brent Wilkerson and Matt Lehman, it's now struggling to make much of an impact.
At some point, I still expect running back Bill Belton - having established himself as the team's starter with fellow back Zach Zwinak struggling through some fumblitis right now - to start to make a little more of an impact in the passing game out of the backfield as well.
John Butler is in his first season as the Defensive Coordinator at Penn State. How is his unit performing, and who makes the big plays for Butler?
Bauer: Frankly, it's not good. I'm going to sound like a broken record to any of the BWI subscribers that read this, but the reality is, it's not supposed to be very good.
There are some players - like 2012 B1G Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes, highly-touted DB Adrian Amos, linebackers Glenn Carson and Mike Hull, and DaQuan Jones - that have all been some combination of injured or playing disappointingly, but the larger reality is that there are walk-ons starting, stop-gap measures playing out of position due to other injuries, and a variety of other factors that have led to the No. 80-ranking for scoring defense in the country.
No doubt, he needs to get the defense on the same page as it has, at times, seemed hopelessly confused, but when the situation is as dire as it's been in terms of personnel this season, it's hard to really evaluate the unit as a whole fairly.
The last time Illinois traveled to Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions edged Illinois in Joe Paterno's last game. In the snow. How do you expect the game to play out on Saturday, and do you have a prediction for a final score?
Bauer: I expect Saturday to be a snow-free day. If it does snow, I'll be the guy in the press box wearing gloves and two pairs of socks during the game, along with the unmistakable scowl of a misery.
That said, I think that Saturday is going to be interesting for a variety of factors, not least of which are the match ups between two capable offenses against two incapable defenses. If it's windy or rainy, as it could be, maybe the scoring numbers go down a little for each team, but I still think there's going to be some points put up by both sides.
Just based on the circumstances of this series, at Beaver Stadium, with a little (maybe overblown at this point) motivation for Penn State thrown into the mix, this one looks like it should come out in Penn State's favor on paper. I think the Nittany Lions cover, barely.
Penn State 31