Penn State Preview: Illinois

Jonathan Sutherland and the Nittany Lions welcome Illinois to Beaver Stadium for a 5:30 p.m. Saturday. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions this football season.

Game details: vs. Illinois, 5:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on FS1.

Venue: Beaver Stadium, where Penn State boasts an all-time record of 298-77.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 35 degrees and mostly sunny.

All-time series: Penn State leads 19-5.

Last meeting (2019): Penn State won 63-24 in Champaign on a Friday night battle.  

Last week: Penn State continued its second-half surge with a 39-24 home victory over Michigan State on Senior Day. Illinois, meanwhile, had its dreary season extended with a 28-10 loss at Northwestern.

The lead: After Penn State’s turnaround in the second half against Michigan State and a favorable draw against a struggling Illinois team, the Nittany Lions are on the brink of avoiding a losing season, a rarity for both Penn State and James Franklin.

First things first. Illinois will enter the matchup without former head coach Lovie Smith, who was fired following the team’s loss to Northwestern last Saturday. Despite his struggles at Illinois, Smith is an impressive coach, having totaled four seasons of 10-plus wins during his time in the NFL with the Chicago Bears. It’s reasonable to wonder why the Illinois administration didn’t wait until after the season ended, if only because players have already had to deal with so many obstacles this year. Now, Illinois has to deal with a coaching transition with one game left in the regular season, and a road trip to a team on the rise.

Penn State wins if: the defense plays the way it did in the second half against Michigan State. The Spartans scored only three points after halftime and totaled only 64 rushing yards for the game, the third time this season the Nittany Lions have held their opponent to less than 100 rushing yards. Illinois ranks next to last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (20 points/game), so this is a good opportunity for the Penn State defense to continue to build momentum in preparation for a possible bowl.

Illinois wins if: a whole lot goes right for the Fighting Illini. Illinois ranks in the bottom half of most offensive and defensive categories in the conference, including last in completion percentage, passing offense, red zone offense, rushing defense, and total defense.

Count on: Parker Washington continuing to be a big part of Penn State’s offense. Washington is the only FBS freshman with five games of 70-plus receiving yards through the first eight games of the season.

Keep an eye on: any of the team’s 12 seniors who are in the game Saturday. It’ll be interesting to see how they emotionally respond after last week’s Senior Day ceremony, when they presumably said goodbye to playing at Beaver Stadium. Now, they’ll have one more chance. Can Shane Simmons duplicate his career game last weekend, when he registered seven tackles, two tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks? Players get extra amped up for Senior Day, knowing it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For this year’s seniors, that’ll be true twice.

Trivia tidbit: During last week’s win, Jahan Dotson became only the third Big Ten player since 2000 to record 100-plus receiving yards and score a punt return touchdown in the same game.

For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

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