First road test provides new challenges for Penn State

Sep. 16—One thing Bret Bielema thinks about often is the reality no coach ever wants to face.

Every weekend college football games are played, half the teams will lose.

Last weekend, and rather surprisingly, his was one of them. Resurgent Illinois entered the season a darkhorse contender to win the Big Ten West, but 2023 has not started with the promise 2022 showed.

To avoid being in the wrong half of the teams around college football this weekend, Bielema knows the Fighting Illini must do the one thing that can turn its season around. He also knows it will be easier said than done.

The Fighting Illini return home after a stunning loss to Kansas last Friday to take on surging No. 7 Penn State at noon at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, looking for another program-turning upset of the Nittany Lions. When the programs last met at Beaver Stadium in 2021, Illinois shocked the team that was then-ranked No. 7 in the nation, pulling off a 20-18 win in nine overtimes.

The once-downtrodden Illini have undergone a bit of rebirth since Bielema took over the program in 2021, and a loss like that 34-23 drubbing by the Jayhawks on Sept. 8 registers as especially difficult coming off their first New Year's Bowl season in 15 years. That's a good thing, Bielema insists, even if it resulted in an especially difficult week with the Nittany Lions looming.

"One of the things we commonly talk about in our program, one of the best things that can happen, is you grow a lot from difficult conversations," Bielema said. "When you have things you need to correct and things that need to be done, those conversations aren't as easy as when you're very successful. For the defensive staff, for the offensive staff, just to go back and revisit so we can move forward is never easy."

Illinois entered the season boasting a defense strong up the middle, led by All-American contenders Jer'Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph III on the defensive line. But the defense got smoked for 262 rushing yards and 277 through the air against Kansas. That came a week after Toledo gained 416 total yards in a game Illinois needed a last-minute field goal to escape with a win.

That might seem like good news for a Penn State offense that averages 50.5 points per game this season after lopsided wins over West Virginia and Delaware at Beaver Stadium. But, there are two areas of concern for the Nittany Lions as they head on the road for the first time this season.

One is doing so with a quarterback, Drew Allar, who has never started a game away from Happy Valley.

The other: Illinois' defense is far more talented than the results indicate, players said. After all, this is the team and the scheme that led the nation in scoring defense in 2022. That's why they expect a much different look than Toledo and Kansas received the first two weeks.

"They make everything look the same; They do a really good job with disguising," said Allar, who has 529 yards passing and four touchdowns this season despite only playing two series in the fourth quarter. "They have a lot of big guys up front. It's definitely going to be a challenge this week. It's a Big Ten game on the road. It's not going to be easy by any stretch. They're really talented and really well-coached. ... They forced a lot of turnovers in the past. They really get after the quarterback and do a really good job of stopping the running game."

The Illini's goal Saturday: Prove the past isn't necessarily gone.

To do that, they have to move on from it and hope they can create their own fresh start.

"You can have some conversations. But on the same point, you can't let Kansas beat you twice," Bielema said. "You have to jump into your preparation, learn from your mistakes, make the adjustments you need to make and move forward."

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