Penn State comes in with a three-game winning steak and needing one win to lock up a bowl berth. The Nittany Lions have a lot of momentum right now, while Illinois very well could be just playing out the string looking to wrap up a dismal season.
Kickoff: 5:30 p.m.
Records: Penn State (3-5); Illinois (2-5)
PSU: Since Sean Clifford stopped turning the ball over, the offense has looked pretty good for the most part. The first half against Michigan State last week wasn’t great with only 10 points, but the second half was a different story as the Lions rolled, 29-3, for a 39-24 win. Clifford is playing with a lot more confidence — not trying to be perfect or trying to do too much. He has help around him with the wideouts and in the running game now, so he can play more comfortably throwing and running the ball. Backup QB Will Levis has been essentially another running back of late, a strategy the Lions have had to use with depleted depth at the tailback spot. Look for that to continue today, with Levis playing a good bit and running on most of his snaps. This could be a chance for Keyvone Lee to have a big game against an Illini defense that gave up a staggering 411 yards rushing last week against Northwestern.
Illinois: I just don’t see the Illini doing much offensively, especially without top receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, who has opted out to prepare for the NFL draft. Isaiah Williams — not to be confused with former Illini QB Isaiah “Juice” Williams — split time last week with Brandon Peters. We’ll see who plays the most this week. Illinois scored 41 points at Nebraska a month ago, but in the last two games, it scored 21 against Iowa and 10 against Northwestern. Those are two good defenses, and Penn State’s defense has been playing much better of late.
Advantage: Penn State
PSU: The tackling in space issue was a problem again in the first half last week against Sparty, but the Lions cleaned everything up and were terrific in the second half. The stand after Michigan State had first-and-goal at the 4 up 21-18 was huge for the defense as it held the Spartans to a field goal. We’ll see if DE Jayson Oweh plays today after sitting out last week because he got banged up against Rutgers. Oweh and Shaka Toney give the Lions two first-team all-Big Ten defensive ends. Illinois should not be a major threat throwing the ball, which will only help PSU’s defense.
Illinois: Again, Illinois gave up 411 yards rushing last week. That’s almost unbelievable. It wasn’t against Ohio State or Wisconsin, but Northwestern. I cannot trust any defense that gives up 411 yards rushing, because that’s essentially the players on that side of the ball either getting manhandled on every single play or just flat out quitting.
Advantage: Penn State
PSU: This is where Penn State has the biggest advantage. When I was with the Altoona Mirror, I would give out a football for the team that had the advantage, and very rarely I would give out two footballs if the advantage was enormous. This would be a two-football kind of pick. PSU has won three in a row, is inspired and confident as it looks to make it four straight, with a chance to finish the season .500 with a bowl win. After the 0-5 start, to finish 5-5 would be a terrific accomplishment for this team, and that goal is now in sight.
Illinois: The Illinois just fired coach Lovie Smith on Sunday. What do they have to play for? Seriously. After this terrible year, with the start of the Big Ten season delayed, then after going 2-5 and having your coach fired, it would be astonishing if Illinois comes out and plays a really inspired game today. I suspect the opposite will happen — that PSU will roll over an Illini team that is just ready for this season to be over.
Advantage: PENN STATE (2 FOOTBALLS)
Penn State 37, Illinois 13: The first half has been the bugaboo for PSU this season, including last week against Sparty. Look for the Lions to come out and play a good first half and then pound the Illini.