Before the season, this was a matchup that commentators and pundits circled as a potential upset spot for the Nittany Lions. The last meeting between these two teams played out that way, when Illinois beat Penn State 20-18 in nine overtimes during the 2021 season.
Historically, this is a series that the Nittany Lions have dominated. Penn State has a 20-6 record against the Illini, including a 9-4 record on the road.
When the Nittany Lions are ranked, they are 12-2 in this series, including a 6-1 record when ranked inside the Top 10.
However, each new season comes with new challenges and Penn State could have their hands full on Saturday.
Here are five things to know about the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Potent Rushing Attack
When Penn State was aiming to improve their defensive interior to stop the rushing attacks of opposing teams, it was mainly with the idea of limiting Michigan and Ohio State.
Illinois will test the Nittany Lions’ run defense on Saturday, which has looked shaky to start the season.
The Illini have two running backs in Reggie Love III and Josh McCray who are on the Doak Walker Watch List, but their new quarterback Luke Altmyer has been the leading rusher on the team, averaging 69.5 yards per game.
Havoc Up Front
The strength of this Illinois defense is on the defensive line, led by interior lineman Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. who returned to the team after big years last season.
The team has record 10 tackles for loss in two games and three sacks. Their goal is to get up the field as much as possible to disrupt the running and passing games of their opponents early and often.
After having one of the best secondaries in college football last season that had 24 interceptions and allowed 173.8 passing yards per game, that is not the case this season.
The Illini have had to replace three of their starters from 2022 who were selected in the NFL Draft. The new unit has given up 253.5 passing yards per game this year and could be an area that Penn State attacks on Saturday.
Passing Game Potential
Although Illinois hasn’t showed much through the air so far this season, there is potential for this passing attack to pop.
Isaiah Williams, Pat Bryant and Casey Washington are three of their top wide receivers from last season who returned. They also got their most productive tight end Tip Reiman back as well.
If their quarterback Altmyer has time to find his receivers in open spots, there is a possibility that the offense moves the ball through the air.
Leaky Offensive Line
Three starters from last year’s team are back for this season, including tackle Isaiah Adams who is on the Outland Trophy Watch List. Despite the returning experience, there has been some struggles for Illinois up front.
They’ve given up eight sacks in two games this season and are coming off allowing six sacks in their game against Kansas last Friday. This could be a major factor in the matchup on Saturday.