Sep. 16—Beat writer Scott Richey previews the Illini's showdown with the Nittany Lions ahead of Saturday's 11 a.m. kickoff at Memorial Stadium in the Big Ten opener for both teams:
Three big storylines
Stopping the run
Illinois enters Saturday's game ranked 120th nationally in rushing defense. Toledo and Kansas combined to average 224 yards per game on the ground. The Rockets leaned on quarterback Dequan Finn with a complementary dose of Maryland transfer Peny Boone. The Jayhawks did whatever it took to give Devin Neal some space, which he turned into 120 yards on just 10 carries.
Penn State might not have a quarterback who can run like Toledo's or a shifty athlete like Neal, but what the Nittany Lions do have is two legitimate options in Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton. The pair has combined to rush 54 times for 271 yards and five touchdowns in two games.
"These guys, you really need to defend sideline to sideline," Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. "They do a lot of different things to get the ball to the perimeter. They also hit you up inside. They run some pin-pulls, which will try to gap you and gash you inside. They have two running backs that you can see they plan those guys on how they're going to attack you and what they're going to do. ... We have to get a pulse on what they're trying to do with the personnel that's out there, and we have to react accordingly."
Change up front?
Illinois hasn't played a full game yet with its intended starting offensive line this season. Three different linemen didn't finish the season opener against Toledo. Julian Pearl was in the same situation at Kansas after dislocating a finger. The only constant has been Josh Kreutz at center. The other four positions have been shuffled accordingly to deal with the injury and cramping issues.
Pair that uncertainty with some concerns in pass protection, and Illinois could make changes up front for Saturday's game even if holding on to the continuity on the left side of the line was the preference heading into the season. Bielema said after the Kansas game that the Illini's best five — and what they're asked to do — would be evaluated.
"It's a tough thing to do is to balance continuity with trying to find the best five whoever that may be and whatever combination that may be," Illinois offensive line coach Bart Miller said. "That's why you have a week of practice. That's why you have some of the stuff we do in practice — the run drill, the blitz pickup, the team pass. Getting those guys working together who will be out there playing is critical.
"We have to get the right people in the right places, and we've got to perform. Simple as that. There's three guys returning from a line that had a really good year last year as a whole, and we've got to play better up front."
Cutting down on explosive plays
Illinois gave up 10 chunk plays in its season opener against Toledo, including six completions of at least 15 yards. That number was significantly bigger last week at Kansas. The Jayhawks had eight chunk plays in the passing game and 12 more on the ground. That included a 48-yard completion from Jalon Daniels to Luke Grimm to set up Kansas' final touchdown of the first half and a 43-yard rush from Neal early in the third quarter that led to a field goal.
"We did a study in the offseason," Illinois defensive coordinator Aaron Henry said. "If you have three or more explosives or what we consider explosives — a run of 16 yards or more or a pass of 21 yards or more — your chances of winning and playing good defense are really slim. ... When you're having explosive plays that amass for 250-300 yards of offense, that's not good. That's not good defense. You've got to look at everything."
Two key matchups
Illinois defense vs. Penn State QB Drew Allar
The silver lining for an Illinois defense that's been gouged in back-to-back weeks for 955 total yards and 53 points is Allar isn't Finn or Daniels. Those two ran the Illini defense ragged. Finn for seriously positive yardage and Daniels in circles as he scrambled to keep passing plays alive. Allar does move well for a 6-foot-5, 242-pound quarterback, but he's not going to break containment and put on a burst of speed in running past defenders. The challenge is different this week. Allar has completed 78 percent of his passes for 529 yards and four touchdowns this season. Pressuring him in the pocket will be crucial.
Illinois defense vs. itself
Breakdowns in defensive fundamentals the first two weeks of the season is what truly concerned Bielema and the Illinois defensive staff. Missed tackles. Bad pursuit angles. Both contributed to the Illini's struggles against Toledo and Kansas. But so did penalties. And not the run-of-the-mill encroachment or offsides calls. Big ones. Unsportsmanlike conduct. Pass interference. Facemask. Roughing the passer. Illinois has committed 158 yards worth of penalties through two games, with 10 penalties for 100 yards nearly derailing the season opener against Toledo. Most of them generated by the defense. Cutting back against Penn State will be a necessity.
One stat that matters
31. That's the average number of points Illinois has allowed through the first two weeks of the season, which ties the Illini at 103rd nationally with Baylor and New Mexico. A far cry from last year's nation-leading 12.8 points per game allowed in 2022. This year's national leader is Syracuse at just 3.5 points against the likes of Colgate and Western Michigan. Arkansas State is at the other end of the spectrum, allowing an average of 55 points in losses to Oklahoma and Memphis.
Illinois will win if
... it can avoid the slow start that nearly doomed it against Toledo and did so at Kansas. It's not just on the offense or defense. The offense has to be able to extend drives early in the game. The defense has to do the opposite and get off the field on third down. The complementary football Bielema preaches has been nonexistent through two weeks. It will take that kind of effort to come away with another top 10 upset of Penn State.
Penn State will win if
... mistakes are limited. That's how Illinois can make up the talent gap. Of course, the Nittany Lions have managed to keep the ball secure through the first two weeks of the season with zero turnovers committed. And Allar, who got some playing time last year as a true freshman, has yet to throw an interception in his career. If Penn State can establish its run game early and put real pressure on Luke Altmyer, the combination should be enough to avoid a repeat of its 2021 home loss to the Illini (in nine overtimes, no less)