Penn State vs. Illinois: Breaking down the matchups

Sep. 15—When Penn State has the ball

Offensive line vs. Defensive line

We'll see on Saturday if Penn State's front five is as good as people think it is. C Hunter Nourzad and tackles Olu Fashanu and Caedan Wallace are all fresh after a veritable week off against Delaware, and they'll need to be against two defensive linemen who could wind up being all-Big Ten players. DTs Jer'Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. were arguably the best tandem of defensive linemen in the Big Ten last year, and Newton is coming off a two-sack outing against Kansas. They're going to need as big a game from 320-pound NT Denzel Daxon to make Penn State one-dimensional though. EDGE: Penn State

Quarterbacks/Receivers vs. Secondary

It has been a strong start not just for QB Drew Allar but a receiving corps that came into the season with a ton of question marks. Nine different receivers have caught passes from Allar through the first two games, and Illinois will have to keep an eye on junior KeAndre Lambert-Smith and senior Dante Cephas, who both average better than 19 yards per catch. Illinois is getting safety Matthew Bailey back Saturday after missing two games with an injury, but this is a secondary that took a lot of hits after last season's dominant campaign. Toledo and Kansas averaged 253.5 yards through the air against them so far. EDGE: Penn State

Running backs vs. Linebackers

Seems strange with the quality of that defensive line, but opponents also are averaging more than 5 yards per carry against the Illini this season. Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen are a formidable duo, but third-stringer Trey Potts has looked explosive, too. Illinois might just be aggressive enough at the linebacker spot to give this group some big-play possibilities, but also has historically took enough away, too. Senior Tarique Barnes has been a force in the backfield, but this group has missed too many tackles this season. EDGE: Penn State

When Illinois has the ball


Offensive line vs. Defensive line

This is really where Penn State lost the nine-overtime game, and it's the start of head coach James Franklin's somewhat controversial pleas regarding the Nittany Lions' size in the trenches on the defensive side.

Illinois coach Bret Bielema found an advantage and repeatedly attacked it, as Illinois ran for 357 yards in the 2021 meeting, often behind massive eight-man fronts. The Illini have six offensive linemen who play significant sacks, and outside of 6-foot-2, 290-pound center Josh Kreutz — the son of former Chicago Bears All-Pro center Olin Kreutz — the others are all at least 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, led by 320-pound all-conference guard Isaiah Adams.

This will be a true test for Penn State up front. Will they be big enough in the middle to handle a team that will try to pound it at them? Will ends Chop Robinson and Adisa Isaac show that they've improved as much against the run as they hope, as well? EDGE: Penn State

Quarterbacks/Recievers vs. Secondary

Penn State's gifted corners haven't been challenged yet this season, but Illinois' Luke Altmyer is the best quarterback they'll have seen so far this season. The Ole Miss transfer is a legitimate dual threat, leading the team in rushing (139 yards) and passing (408 yards) through two weeks. He does have a solid pair of receiving threats in 6-foot-3 Pat Bryant (two touchdowns) and senior Isaiah Williams (11 catches). But his three interceptions will have those Lions corners, Kalen King and Johnny Dixon, on alert. EDGE: Penn State

Running backs vs. Linebackers

There's more talent here than there has been production for the Illini. Sophomore Josh McCray, who had a big game against the Lions in 2021, has struggled so far, and the carries split has not allowed junior Reggie Love to get in much of a rhythm so far. Neither have been much of a factor in the pass game. Penn State's linebackers have been solid if not spectacular this season. Dominic DeLuca had a Pick-6 against Delaware, but they'll need more from Abdul Carter and Curtis Jacobs, who played sparingly last week. EDGE: Penn State

Special teams

Kicking game

Illinois kicker Caleb Griffin's lone make this season was a 29-yarder to win the game against Toledo in the season opener, and the senior entered the season considered one of the strongest specialists in the Big Ten. Penn State still has some questions to answer at the position, especially after not attempting a field goal last week. But transfer Alex Felkins has looked solid on extra points and kickoffs. EDGE: Illinois

Return game

Only 40 percent of Griffin's kickoffs have gone for touchbacks, so Singleton should get an opportunity or two to break a kick return for Penn State. Illinois return man Aidan Laughery has a 30-yard return on his season stat line so far, but Penn State's kickers, led by Gabriel Nwosu, have been solid forcing touchbacks. EDGE: Penn State

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