Preview & Picks: Illinois at Penn State


THE STORYLINE

On the morning of Dec. 19, 2020, Bret Bielema officially was named the Illinois football head coach. Later that night from a nearly-empty Beaver Stadium due to the pandemic, Bielema got his first up-close look at his new team. The Illini put up a first-quarter fight with a more talented Penn State team, drawing a 21-21 tie after a frantic first quarter. But Bielema quickly found out how much work needed to be done during the final three quarters as Penn State scored 35 unanswered points in a 56-21 win.

“I do remember the fight in our guys at the game," Bielema said. "It wasn’t obviously the outcome they wanted. I remember when we first got there, we got there a little bit into the first quarter and it was a good game rolling at that point. It got a little bit lopsided at the end. They just ran out of bodies."

Ten months later, Bielema will be able to measure the amount of progress, or lack thereof, as Illinois (2-5, 1-3 Big Ten) kicks off at a likely full Beaver Stadium against No. 7 Penn State (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) at 11 a.m. CT Saturday (ABC).

Few expect Illinois — with its Big Ten-worst scoring offense going against Penn State’s Big Ten-best scoring defense — to put up much of a fight against Penn State even though Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback Sean Clifford is questionable for the game due to injury. William Hill’s oddsmakers have the Illini as a 23.5-point underdog.

The Illini defense has shown promise in recent weeks, holding Big Ten opponents to under 20 points per game, which ranks seventh in the league during conference play. But in its last four games against power-five opponents, the Illini offense has averaged just 10.0 points per game.

Illinois entered its first of two off weeks this season following a 24-0 shutout loss to Wisconsin. The schedule doesn’t give them a great opportunity for a bounce-back win — though some opportunities lie ahead against Rutgers, at Minnesota and against Northwestern — but Bielema 10 months after earning and taking the Illinois job is continuing to learn more about his team and program. He wants to see them show progress on Saturday no matter the opponent.

“One of the things we talk about is no team from Illinois past or the team we’re playing is present on Saturday,” Bielema said. “It’s about how those 11 match up on Saturday on every play. I’ll never vary off of that. I do think there’s a time where you want to bring things up or other times you don’t bring them up, depending on the results. I don’t think it’s anything too glaring to assume our players don’t know we have a really good football team that we’re going to play at their place on Saturday at noon (Eastern Time) and for us to be at our best is the only assignment that we really have. We’ll be at our best and compete and play a four-quarter game. I think the way we left the field last time should be motivation in itself to play a higher level of football in all phases against a Big Ten opponent.

Illinois (2-5, 1-3 Big Ten) at No. 7 Penn State (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten)

Date: Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021

Site: Beaver Stadium (University Park, Pa.)

Time: 11 a.m. CT

TV: ABC — Bob Wischusen (play-by-play), Dan Orlovsky (analyst), and Kris Budden (reporter)

WATCH: FuboTV 

Radio: Illini Radio Network (List of stations here)

Radio stream: TuneIn App

Kickoff Forecast: 50 degrees, partly cloudy, 72% humidity, 18% chance of precipitation, wind 5 mph

Spread: Penn State -23.5 (William Hill)

Over/under: 46 (William Hill)

The series: Penn State leads the series 20-5, including a 10-1 advantage in University Park. The Illini last won at Penn State in 2010 (33-13).

Notes

  • Illinois running back Mike Epstein is out for the season, and linebacker Jake Hansen is out for “an extended period of time,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said this week.
  • The Illini defense has held opponents to 24 points or fewer in four straight games for the first time since October 2011.
  • But the Illinois offense has averaged just 10 points per game during its last four games against power-five opponents.
  • Illinois is fifth in the nation in fumbles recovered (8), ninth in the nation in turnover margin (+1.14 per game) and 13th in the nation in takeaways (13).
  • Kerby Joseph is the only player in the country with 3-plus interceptions and 3-plus fumble recoveries.
  • Illinois is eighth in the nation in net punting (44.10).
  • The last time Illinois played a top-10 opponent the Illini defeated No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23 in Champaign on Oct. 19, 2019.
  • This is the second straight season Illinois will travel to Penn State. Last season, Illinois lost to Penn State 56-21 under the leadership of interim coach Rod Smith just days after Lovie Smith was fired. Bret Bielema, who had been hired earlier that day, was in attendance for the game.
  • Illini fifth-year seniors Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski will tie the record for career starts in Illini history with a start against Penn State. The record of 48 career starts is currently shared by QB Nathan Scheelhaase (2010-13), C Ryan McDonald (2005-08), and OL Tim Simpson (1988-91).
  • Penn State will wear “Generations of Greatness” uniforms on Saturday, which include numbers on the helmets, block uniform numbers, a white stripe on the sleeves, a blue stripe on the pants, a gray facemask and white cleats.
  • Penn State is No. 3 in the country in scoring defense (13.8 points per game), while Illinois is No. 120 in the country in scoring offense (17.7 points per game). PSU also is No. 2 in the country in red-zone defense.
  • Penn State is 32-5 at Beaver Stadium since 2016.
Preview & Picks: Illinois at Penn State
Ta'Quan Roberson

QB Ta'Quan Roberson: With star quarterback Sean Clifford’s status in doubt due to injury, Penn State this week has split reps between Roberson, a redshirt sophomore, and freshman Christian Veilleux. Roberson, who is 5-foot-11, 197 pounds, struggled immensely at Iowa in relief of Clifford, completing just 7 of 21 passes for 34 yards and two interceptions. During his career, he is 11 of 29 passing for 85 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs. The former four-star prospect has a strong arm and can make plays with his feet but has struggled with accuracy. Veilleux was a three-star prospect out of Ottawa, Ontario, who did not play a senior season due to the pandemic.

RB Keyvone Lee: The 6-foot, 239-pound sophomore actually has the third-most carries for Penn State behind Noah Cain (67 carries for 202 yards) and Clifford (44 carries for 173 yards), but Lee has been the most effective back per carry (5.4 yards per carry) and his physical rushing style could wear down the Illini defense, similar to Wisconsin’s backs.

WR Jahan Dotson: One of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten and the country, Dotson currently leads the Big Ten with 43 receptions (for 494 yards) and is second in the conference with six receiving touchdowns. He’s a great route runner with great ball skills. Last season against Illinois, he had six receptions for a career-high 189 yards and two touchdowns.

WR Parker Washington: The younger brother of former Illini recruiting staffer Ashton Washington, the 5-foot-10, 207-pound sophomore has been greatly productive in his first two seasons. Through 15 games, the former four-star prospect has 64 receptions for 846 yards and eight touchdowns.

OL Rasheed Walker: Pro Football Focus hasn’t given Walker a great grade this season (58.3), but the 6-foot-6, 325-pound offensive tackle was named third team All-Big Ten last season. CBS Sports currently ranks him the No. 46 overall prospect and No. 9 offensive lineman in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Preview & Picks: Illinois at Penn State
Arnold Ebiketie

DE Arnold Ebiketie: The top-rated defensive player on Penn State, according to PFF (88.5), the Temple transfer and 6-foot-3, 256-pound edge rusher leads Penn State with 9.0 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks. PFF credits Ebiketie with 25 pressures, 16 more than any other PSU player.

LB Brandon Smith: The 6-foot-3, 241-pound junior has 37 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, two PBUs and two quarterback hits.

DB Joey Porter Jr.: The 6-foot-2, 192-pound redshirt sophomore earned All-Big Ten Third Team honors last season and has elevated his game in 2021. So far this season, Porter — whose father played 13 seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers — has 24 tackles, three pass breakups, one interception and one forced fumble.

DB Jaquan Brisker: One of the best safeties in the Big Ten and the country, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior last season earned All-America first team honors last season from PFF and was named an All-Big Ten Third Team selection. This season, Brisker has 25 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, three pass break ups and two interceptions.

DB Ji'Ayir Brown: The 6-foot-11, 205-pound senior and former JUCO prospect leads Penn State with three interceptions.

Preview & Picks: Illinois at Penn State

The Illini offensive line: Bret Bielema had pointed comments for the offensive line recruiting of the previous staff leaving him with little depth and future options, but his current offensive line — which includes five seniors in its top-seven — hasn’t met expectations this season. Last game against an elite Wisconsin defense, the Illini couldn’t protect their quarterback (Brandon Peters was hit a few times before leaving with an injury) and couldn’t get a push up front against a stout Wisconsin front. The task doesn’t get any easier against a great, talented Penn State front. Vederian Lowe, Doug Kramer and Alex Palczewski all want to play at the next level. They need more good film against great opponents to improve their chances at getting that shot. Lowe and Palczewski must be more consistent in their pass sets, while Kramer — who hasn’t been as effective since returning from an ankle injury — must do a better job of communicating on the interior, which struggled with stunts against Wisconsin.

Preview & Picks: Illinois at Penn State
Tarique Barnes

LBs Tarique Barnes and Khalan Tolson: The Illini felt pretty good about its depth at linebacker entering the season, but injuries have robbed them of that going into the back half of the scheduled. CJ Hart has missed the last six games after a starring role in the Week Zero win over Nebraska, and Jake Hansen after missing two games with an injury will now be out for the season with another injury. Tarique Barnes and Khalan Tolson have experience and have done solid in relief, but the linebackers were bowled over against Wisconsin. With questions at quarterback, expect Penn State to try to establish a physical rushing attack early, meaning the linebackers have to fill and disrupt their gaps, something they didn’t do that well against Wisconsin. Also, Penn State has a pair of good tight ends — Brenton Strange (8 receptions, 115 yards, 2 TDs) and Theo Johnson (5 receptions, 111 yards, 1 TD) — so they’ll have their hands full.

Preview & Picks: Illinois at Penn State
Artur Sitkowski

Top 150 passing yards: This doesn’t seem like it should be so hard in college football, but Illinois hasn’t done it since its loss to Maryland. In fact, the Illini passing game has accounted for just 245 yards during the last three games — just an atrocious number that seems reminiscent of 1921 not 2021. If backup Artur Sitkowski starts in place of Brandon Peters — who is cleared to play but has struggled this season — the Illini seem likelier to hit this number simply because Sitkowski has shown more gumption in throwing the ball down field and giving his teammates a chance, even if the ball isn’t that accurate. But the Illini offense simply needs to be a threat to pass the ball down field to give its solid run game a chance, to move the sticks and to stay on the field to make this more of the ball-control type game the Illini need to compete.

Preview & Picks: Illinois at Penn State

Take advantage of inexperienced quarterbacks: This matchup is scary for Illinois, but the Illini might catch a relative break if Sean Clifford — one of the Big Ten’s best and most dangerous quarterbacks — is unable to play. If Clifford is a no-go, the Illini defense must take advantage of a quarterback with a 62.3 pass efficiency rating (Roberson) or a quarterback (Veilleux) who hasn’t taken a game snap since his junior year of high school in 2019. The Illini have been really good at taking the ball away recently. They’ll need to win the turnover margin handily — and maybe score off one — to compete on Saturday.

This doesn't have to be complicated. Penn State is just way more talented than Illinois right now. I think the gap at wide receiver might be the largest. Isaiah Williams is a baller. He's brought some much-needed juice to the Illini's wide receiver room and is one of the best recruits Illinois has ever landed. But he might be the fourth-best wideout for Penn State this year. It's up to Bret Bielema and the Illinois coaching staff to close that gap. If Sean Clifford doesn't play, Illinois defensively could be in solid shape because Penn State's backup quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson struggled mightily to make any throws down the field and the Penn State rushing attack really hasn't been very good (11th in the Big Ten at 128.3 yards per game). But I don't think Illinois has any answer for Jahan Dotson, Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith. Dotson is special while Washington and Lambert-Smith are both really good, and Penn State is going to get them the ball in space. Penn State's team speed on both sides of the football is going to give Illinois major problems. It'll take a Herculean effort for the Illini to pull off the upset in Happy Valley because this Illini offense does not have the quarterback play to even be mediocre against a good Big Ten defense. The stats might say that Wisconsin is the best overall defense in the Big Ten, but Penn State's is ridiculously good too and they've played better competition. They might be the best overall defense in the Big Ten. Tony Petersen will have to to unload his full bag of tricks to have a chance. Penn State 34, Illinois 3

So, what are the changes that Bret Bielema teased in his Monday press conference? Ultimately, it might not matter against a Penn State team that may be a Sean Clifford injury against Iowa away from being both undefeated and a top five team in the country. His status is the biggest thing to watch on the Penn State side of this, but the rest of the Nittany Lions are, as usual, loaded. The defense is going to be a problem for an Illini offense that's been lacking ... to put it mildly. Penn State has the best scoring defense in the Big Ten (13.8) and Illinois has the worst scoring offense in the conference (17.0). Illinois has the second-worst total offense (324.8) in the conference and Penn State has the fourth-best total defense (311.7). You get the point. The Illini defense is going to have to make some plays and could catch a break if Clifford isn't able to go. Still, this is going to be tough sledding. Penn State 31, Illinois 10.

Remember when Ayo Dosunmu’s runner sealed the victory against a top-10 Penn State squad in State College? That was a fun one. Unfortunately, this game won’t be worth remembering on the Illini side. The Nittany Lions have the top scoring defense in the Big Ten and Illinois’ scoring offense is dead-last in the conference. Sean Clifford’s status is still in question, but he’s back to practicing. I’d expect a business-like performance out of Penn State before getting ready for their showdown in Columbus next week. Illinois will be fortunate to head back to Champaign with a touchdown. Penn State 31, Illinois 7

Well, against Wisconsin I thought Illinois would have at least gotten into field goal range a couple times and come away with some points, but the Illini offense really struggled all game against a formidable Badgers' defense.  The Illini face another stout defense this weekend in Penn State, and even if the Nittany Lions don't have Sean Clifford at 100%, it may not matter if the Illinois offense can't generate anything against the Penn State defense.  The Illinois defense has steadily improved over the course of the year, but their efforts at times have been in vain with the offense unable to control the ball and control time of possession.  For Illinois to even keep this moderately close, the offense will have to sustain some drives and eat up time on the clock.  However, the experienced offensive line hasn't really played up to their experience all season, and both quarterbacks under center this year have struggled mightily to get anything done.  So despite having two weeks to prepare and get healthy for this one, I just don't see the result changing.  Penn State 31, Illinois 3.

Oh, boy. What a mismatch this is on paper. Penn State is loaded with NFL prospects, while Illinois doesn't have a clear NFL Draft pick for next spring. With Sean Clifford out, the Illini defense may have some opportunities for takeaways, but the PSU playmakers, especially in the passing game, likely will just out-talent Illinois at some points. But even if the Illini defense could hold another team under 30 points, there's little confidence the Illini offense can threaten 20 points against the Big Ten's best scoring defense that is loaded with great athletes. Illinois has to find a way to get some explosive plays in the passing game, and maybe Artur Sitkowski (if he starts) will be aggressive enough to make that happen, and the defense has to force multiple takeaways to give the Illini a chance. The odds aren't great. Fight, try to compete into the second half and get out healthy for next week's game against Rutgers. Penn State 35, Illinois 10.