Illini set to face Nittany Lions

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Illinois (2-2, 0-0) vs. Penn State (2-2, 0-0)
Sept. 29, 2012 // 11:01 a.m. CT // ESPN
Champaign, Ill. // Memorial Stadium (60,670)
Television Broadcast: The Illinois/Penn State game will be televised nationally on the ESPN and ESPN 3D with an air time of 11:01 am CT. Dave Pasch (play-by-play), Brian Griese
(color analyst) and Jenn Brown (sidelines) will call the action
Radio Broadcast: The 41-station Illini Sports Network will carry the radio broadcast with the pregame show beginning at 10:30 am CT. Calling the action will be Brian Barnhart
(play-by-play), Kurt Kittner (analysis) and Steve Kelly (pregame, halftime and postgame). The broadcast also can be heard on SIRIUS (85) / XM (85) satellite radio.
Penn State players to watch:QB Matt McGloin, WR Allen Robinson, LB Gerald Hodges, LB Matt McGloin, TE Kyle Carter
Illinois players to watch:QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Josh Ferguson, LB Jonathan Brown, DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence
The Fighting Illini open the Big Ten season with an 11am CT contest against Penn State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Illinois is coming off of a disappointing 52-24 loss to Louisiana Tech last week, and hope to regroup as conference play gets underway.
Both teams enter the game with a 2-2 record, but Penn State is on the two-game winning streak after losses to Ohio and Virginia to open their 2012 campaign. Illini coach Tim Beckman sees improvement in the Nittany Lions over the last few weeks in their wins over Navy and Temple.
"I think Coach (Bill) O'Brien has done a great job with that program," Beckman said. "You can see how they have progressed each and every week, from the Ohio U game all the way to this last week against Temple. They're 2-2, their goals and their dreams are the same. They want to win a Big Ten championship and this is their first opportunity for a Big Ten game."
Though the Nittany Lions have been hurt by transfers, Beckman still sees a typical Big Ten team that will get after it in the trenches.
"We know that they'll be very physical up front offensively and defensively," Beckman said. "I'm very impressed with how physical they play. (They have) A defense that is probably a little more veteran than the offense. Special teams that are very intact; they do a great job fundamentally. You can see how they've progressed through that system after two tough losses early."
When Illinois has the ball
The Illini have to find a way to jump-start an offense that now ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten conference in nearly every statistical category. It starts up front, where the offensive line has battled injuries to center Graham Pocic and tackle Hugh Thornton. You can blame play-calling, and it hasn't always been top notch. But nothing is going to work if the big uglies up front aren't jelling. You can't trick defenses - you have to beat them. Can this offensive line get some push for the running backs and protect the quarterback in the passing game?
Beckman made it clear this week that Nathan Scheelhaase is the starting quarterback at Illinois. If healthy, Scheelhaase is the type of quarterback that can make defenses work because of his versatility. The staff may not want Scheelhaase carrying the ball in the running this week - you have to protect the ankle and make sure he doesn't ding it again. But the biggest difference with Scheelhaase as opposed to Reilly O'Toole is the ability to make plays with his feet when flushed from the pocket. And Illinois quarterbacks will get flushed from the pocket plenty.
Illinois will want to be balanced and multiple with their sets. The old-school formula of establishing the run to set up the pass will only work if the offensive line has a break-out game. To compensate for the problems up front, co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty hinted that we may see some tweaks with the formations. Don't rule out a two-back situation, with Jon Davis or Zack Becker playing the lead-blocker role. The stretch running plays just aren't getting the job done. There could also be situations when the Illini have two tight ends on the field.
We have beat it to death…will Illinois start to get their talented tight ends involved in the passing game? Penn State may not be the ideal team to break out the passes to Jon Davis, Matt LaCosse, etc. The Nittany Lions have a strong line-backing crew, led by All-Big Ten candidate Gerald Hodges. Still, the Penn State pass defense has been sporadic. Ohio and Virginia threw for 324 and 295 yards respectively in wins over the Nittany Lions. Scheelhaase needs to get the ball downfield, and hopefully he can get the protection that he needs.
The X-Factor: QB Nathan Scheelhaase - he was our key player last week. Ditto.
When Penn State has the ball
Quarterback Matt McGloin is a different player than the one that Illinois faced a year ago in Happy Valley. He leads the Big Ten in passing yards and has thrown for 9 TDs to just two interceptions. Though the Nittany Lions returned just one starter on the offensive line - center Matt Stankiewitch - they have done a tremendous job protecting McGloin, allowing just 3 sacks in the first four games.
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks hinted at a more aggressive Illini defense this week. To get to McGloin, the Illini will have to bring pressure from every angle and try to confuse Penn State in their pass pro. The usual suspects - Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown - need to spend some time in the Penn State offensive backfield. But they need help from Spence, DE Justin Staples, et al.
The Illini secondary gets a much-needed boost with the return of starting safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull. Until last week, Earnest Thomas was showing signs of being a player. But he struggled recognizing run vs. pass against Louisiana Tech. The secondary will have to put it together against Penn State and prevent the big plays that have plagued them. Nittany Lions wide receiver Allen Robinson is a big target (6-foot-3, 201 pounds) who demands double teams. He got loose for a 41-yard TD pass from McGloin last week against Temple.
The Penn State offensive took a huge hit when RB Silas Redd transferred to USC. Redd gained 137 yards in the Nittany Lions 10-7 win over Illinois last October. Without Redd in the lineup, Penn State ranks last in the Big Ten in rushing offense (124 yards / game) and average just 3.7 yards per carry. The leading rusher is senior Michael Zordich, but converted WR Bill Belton is back from an injury and could be a big-play guy for PSU.
Penn State can move the ball through the air, but they have had trouble punching it in when they get in the red zone (64.3 % - 12th in the Big Ten). If the Illini can prevent long touchdowns, they have a good chance to hold the Nittany Lions under their scoring average of 22 points per game.
The X-Factor:DT Akeem Spence - Spence seems angry. That's a good thing.
Keys to the game
1. Get pressure on Matt McGloin - can't let him get comfortable in the pocket
2. Turnovers - obviously a huge problem against Louisiana Tech.
3. Scheelhaase's mobility - he has to be healthy enough to avoid the pass rush
4. Receivers have to get separation - get the right matchups and exploit them
5. Sanni and Hull return - can they prevent big plays over the top?
This is huge game for Tim Beckman and the Fighting Illini. A win gets the season back on the right track, while a loss could send them on a downward spiral with tough road games coming up in the next two weeks. Expect the Illini to play with some desperation. Illinois 21 Penn State 17
Game Notes
• This week's game marks the 20th meeting between the Fighting Illini and the Nittany Lions. PSU holds a 15-4 overall series advantage and a 7-3 edge in Champaign. The Illini dropped a heartbreaking 10-7 game at Beaver Stadium last season, when Derek Dimke's last-second field goal attempt bounced off the right upright.
• The series returns to Champaign for the first time since 2009, as the Illini grabbed a 33-13 win in Happy Valley in 2010 before falling 10-7 in State College in 2011. Penn State won the last meeting in Champaign in 2009, 35-17.
• Illinois has won two of the last five meetings (2007 and 2010), which is an improvement compared to the rest of the all-time series. Prior to 2007, PSU had won 11 of 13 meetings, including seven in a row from 1972-2000.
•The Nittany Lions are opening their 20th season of Big Ten Conference competition. Penn State has an official 4-11 record in Big Ten opening games.