Coming off a bye week, Penn State hasn’t played a football game in what feels like an eternity now. Starting quarterback Sean Clifford’s status is undetermined and the position is in flux, star defensive tackle PJ Mustipher is out for the season and the Nittany Lions enter the second half of the season with some questions.
However, despite the questions facing the Lions the rest of the way, PSU head coach James Franklin felt like the bye week was very productive for the Lions.
The Lions had a normal Sunday practice coming off the game two weeks ago, spent Tuesday and Wednesday getting a head start on Illinois and getting some “good on good” practice and then changed things up a bit on Thursday.
“Then on Thursday, the travel squad had lifting and running, and we’ve always had a Thursday developmental squad scrimmage, and we kind of amped it up even more so this year,” Franklin said on Tuesday’s Zoom call. “We went into the stadium, had a full scrimmage, had coaches and players mic’d up, did some internal media with them after practice, had a really good experience which I think the guys enjoyed.”
The coaching staff was on the road on Thursday, Friday and Saturday — Franklin himself at two games on Saturday — before getting into a normal game week on Sunday. The only difference, Franklin said, was that there weren’t any corrections to be made from the previous game.
With Illinois on the schedule, Franklin lauded Illini head coach Bret Bielema and his history as a coach in the SEC, Big 10 and NFL over the year. He said he has tremendous respect for Bielema and Illinois.
“You’re talking about a team that returns 17 starters, six on offense, eight on defense and three on specialists — and also one of the oldest teams in college football,” Franklin said. “They have 22 super seniors, which is the highest in the nation. And obviously, there are some advantages and strengths that come with that.”
With a noon kickoff against Illinois at Beaver Stadium, with the Lions set as heavy favorites, let’s take a look at the matchup.
An Illinois Offense With Some Questions
Like the Lions, the Illinois quarterback situation is fluid. Bielema will not announce a quarterback before kickoff Saturday, but opening day starter Brandon Peters and backup Artur Stikowski will both be available.
Peters, a Michigan transfer, has played through an injury-plagued season to the tune of 410 yards on 40-of-82 passing with one touchdown and one interception. Sitkowski, a Rutgers transfer, has played a bit better with more reps, completing 66-of-129 attempts for 666 yards and six touchdowns to just one interception.
Franklin was complimentary of Illinois offensive coordinator Tony Peterson, a veteran coordinator who has coached around the college football landscape. However, Illinois’ offense has struggled mightily this season.
The Illini are scoring a Big 10-worst 17.7 points per game, only finding the end zone 14 times this season. Illinois has converted 10-of-16 drives that have reached the red zone this season, scoring just six touchdowns. The six touchdowns and 62.5 percent are both worst in the conference. Not to pile on, but there has also been three turnover on downs in the red zone.
And it’s not as if the Illini are racking up yards and failing to score, Illinois’ 317.9 yards per game are the second-worst in the conference. While Illinois’ 153.7 passing yards at 49.8% completion percentage at 5.1 yards per attempt are abysmal, the Illini have a solid run game.
Franklin expressed his admiration for Illinois sophomore running back Chase Brown, who has rushed for 414 yards and three touchdowns on 60 attempts this season (almost seven yards per carry), and the versatile Isaiah Williams, a wide receiver with 298 yards and a touchdown this season.
Averaging 164.1 yards per game on the ground, if the Illini manage to get anything going against the Lions’ defense, it’ll come from Brown.
A Defense that Has Given Up Lots of Yards
The Illinois offense has been through some rough performances this season, and the Illini defense has been no different.
First year defensive coordinator Ryan Walters’ unit has given up 24.6 points per game but conference-worsts in yards per game (427.9), yards per play (6.1) and touchdowns (21).
The Illini have given up 264.7 passing yards per game and 11 touchdowns this season, with opposing quarterbacks holding a 143.6 effeciency rating this season. The run defense has been gashed for 163.1 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry — both second worst in the conference.
With 15 sacks and five interceptions this season, however, the Illini defense has been decent in generating splash plays — but the unit has also given up plenty of splash plays.
Franklin highlighted senior defensive lineman Roderick Perry II, senior linebacker Owen Carney Jr., senior linebacker Jake Hansen and senior linebacker Isaiah Gay as impact players on the Illini defense.
Sophomore linebacker Tarique Barnes leads the squad with 42 tackles (25 solo) and a sack this season, Hansen has racked up a team-high four sacks this season and junior defensive back Kerby Joseph has picked off three passes this season.
It’s been a rough year for the unit, but with the Lions entering with a quarterback potentially making his first start, there’s no room to overlook the unit.
However, even with a new quarterback under center, the Lions should manage to cover a 23.5-point spread at Beaver Stadium.