The team needed a last-second field goal to beat Toledo at home in Week 1 and got handled at Kansas, 34-23, the next week.
As two-touchdown underdogs, does Illinois have a chance to upset No. 7 Penn State? Nittany Sports Now talked to Scott Richey, an Illinois beat writer for the News-Gazette in East Central Illinois, for his take on both teams.
NSN: Do you think Illinois has a realistic shot Saturday, and what would it have to do to get what would be a pretty big win?
Scott Richey: I suppose any team has a realistic shot. I mean, two years ago, Penn State was ranked seventh and Illinois won in nine overtimes at Penn State. So, anything clearly can happen, but for it to happen this week, the clear thing is Illinois defense will have to be much better than it was in the first two weeks. And that’s really kind of been an issue, just getting stops, getting off the field. Penalties have been a factor in that as well, so it has to be a lot cleaner from the defense and the offense has to pull its weight as well. It’s been better than the defense, but there’s still some areas that could have been improved. But defense, No. 1, has to be much better against Penn State this weekend.”
NSN: Is Illinois better than what its shown so far this year on defense?
SR: I think the interesting thing is that the secondary hasn’t played that poorly. The main issue has been two mobile quarterbacks in DeQuan Finn (Toledo) and Jalon Daniels (Kansas) the past two week’s have given this front seven some real issues. DeQuan Finn maybe did more in pure rushing (20 carries, 75 yards, one TD against Illinois), but with Jalon Daniels from Kansas, his scrambling ability kept plays alive, he had to beat Illinois through the air. That’s a tough ask for any secondary, even if it was last year with all the veterans, to cover guys for six to 10 seconds. That’s a long time in coverage, that’s how their plays kind of break down, but the defensive line and linebackers have been more of an issue in the first two weeks, and that’s a little bit of a surprise. In theory, that’s probably their strength. So in the long run, Illinois is probably a better defense than they’ve showed through two weeks. But that’s going to come down to actually proving it on the field, with they haven’t done yet.
NSN: What have your observations been of Penn State from the outside?
SR: I think Drew Allar’s been pretty impressive through the first two weeks. Granted, the competition hasn’t been elite that they’ve faced. But it’s a typical Penn State team. Good defense, good running backs. That might be a concern for Illinois more than Drew Allar, just because stopping the run has been an issue through the first two weeks and Penn State has a couple of options back there that are pretty tough. So they’re playing like a top 10 team in the country should right now.
NSN: What have you seen from Illinois’ offense through two weeks, and how to you think that matches up with Penn State’s defense?
SR: I think its an easy thing to say that Penn State will be the best defense that Illinois has faced so far this year, which probably should be a concern for an offense that’s been ok, but hasn’t been able to sustain drives particulary well, at least consistently. Luke Altmeyer, coming in as a first-year starter, he’s been probably better than I anticipated. He may be pretty good. He’s shown some ability in the run game that I didn’t see coming. We didn’t get a ton of looks at him in the spring or in training camp, so we’ve sort of had a limited view of what he might be. He’s not like a running quarterback, but when he needs to run or has to run, he can make things happen.
“I think the main thing for Luke Altmeyer is staying upright. Kansas sacked him six times last week. I don’t know if that was a Luke Altmeyer thing. He stood pretty tall in the pocket, but the protection wasn’t there, and I think if that persists this weekend, Penn State could make his life miserable.”
NSN: What type of atmosphere are you expecting to experience at Saturday’s game?
SR: I think if the first two weeks would have gone better for Illinois, than the crowd would probably be bigger. But even though they beat Toledo, it was not a particulary pretty game and they didn’t really know they were going to win until they got that last-second field goal from Caleb Griffin. Then losing at Kansas the way they did. The fans, I think they’re feeling its a little bit of the same old, same old with Illinois football. So we’ll see if they show up. I mean, in theory, there’s a push for season ticket sales you had going into the season. They added more than ten thousand season ticket holders. There was a decent crowd for the Toledo game, a better crowd than the opener had drawn in several years, but we’ll see if that carries over.
NSN: Do you have any prediction for the game yet?
SR: I haven’t changed my thought on this game (from before the season) based on the first two weeks. Before the season started, I picked Penn State winning this game, and I’m still picking Penn State to win this game.
Prediction: Penn State 38, Illinois 17.