Penn State will play on the road for the first time in the 2023 season in Week 3 when they open Big Ten play against Illinois. The Nittany Lions are preparing for a noon eastern kickoff time against the Illini, who are looking to rebound from a tough start to the season. While things have gone smoothly for Penn State with a comfortable season-opening victory over West Virginia and a dominant blowout of Delaware, Illinois struggled to get by Toledo and took a licking on the road at Kansas in Week 2.
Penn State head coach James Franklin knows his team will be in for a challenge against an Illini team that has plenty of talent on defense and will be looking to get straightened out this weekend. During his weekly press conference with the media, Franklin provided his quick initial thoughts on some of the key players his staff and team have been preparing for.
Illinois wants to give the ball to no. 1
“They’re a spread team, 11 personnel is what they’re going to base out of,” Franklin said when highlighting what he is expecting to see from the Illinois offense. But the secret to the Illini offense is not exactly a great secret.
“They’re trying to find ways to get the ball in the No. 1’s hands, Isaiah Williams, who it feels like he’s been playing at Illinois forever,” Franklin said.
Williams is in his fifth season of college football, so he has been around for a while! Williams started his time at Illinois as a quarterback but he has been a key weapon at receiver the last couple of seasons. This season has seen Williams catch 11 passes for 150 yards, but he has yet to score a touchdown.
The impact of QB Luke Altmyer
“I think Luke Altmyer, the young man from Ole Miss, has really helped them,” Franklin said when discussing the new starting quarterback for Illinois.
“Came in, in the Toledo game, and drove them right down the field,” Franklin said, referring to Altmyer’s debut with the Illini in Week 1. Altmyer completed 18 of 26 passes for 211 yards with an interception and two touchdown passes. He also led the Illini with 69 rushing yards in the win.
“I thought last week, was able to make plays with not just his arm, but with his legs as well,” Franklin said. “I think he had a 72-yard touchdown.”
He did, against Kansas in Week 2.
Scouting the Illini defense
“As we know, [Illinois head coach Bret Bielema] is also involved on the defense. But they’re an odd front or okie front defense,” Franklin said of the Illinois defense. “We’ve been impressed with their personnel.”
Franklin went on to rattle off a number of the key defensive players for Illinois including defensive end Jer’Zhan Newton, defensive tackle Keith Randolph, linebacker Tarique Barnes, cornerback Xavier Scott, and safety Miles Scott.
“Guys we’ve got a lot of respect on tape,” Franklin said. “There was a lot of buzz about these guys in the preseason as well, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to compete against them.”
Illinois had the Big Ten’s second-best total defense in 2022 after allowing an average of 273.5 yards per game. Only Iowa had a better average allowed last season. Through just two games, Illinois has a very different defensive ranking heading into Week 3. The Illini own the Big Ten’s worst total defense with an average of 477.5 yards allowed per game early on.
Penn State owns the Big Ten’s top-ranked offense after two games as the only Big Ten team to average over 500 yards per game early on.
Any lessons from the 2021 game?
Most Penn State fans would prefer not to look back at the last meeting between these two teams, and that is for good reason. Penn State lost to Illinois in a nine-overtime game that highlighted college football’s new two-point conversion system in overtime. Asked if there was anything to gain by looking back at that 2021 game, James Franklin wasn’t really embracing the idea.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been and ever will be again a nine-overtime situation like that. It’s hard to go back and say, well, I’m going to study the analytics in that situation, because there is just not a whole lot examples of it,” Franklin said. “What it taught everybody in the country is you is better have enough two-point plays or low-red-zone plays that you have enough to go to if you get into a situation.”