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.

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Penn State Preview: Michigan

Jahan Dotson and the Nittany Lions head to Ann Arbor this weekend in search of their first win of the season. (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: at Michigan, noon kickoff, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Michigan Stadium.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 46 degrees and sunny.

All-time series: Michigan leads 14-9.

Last meeting (2019): After a last-minute goal line stand, Penn State toppled Michigan 28-21 at Beaver Stadium.

Last week: Michigan outlasted Rutgers 48-42 in triple overtime, while Penn State dropped to 0-5 with a home loss to Iowa.

The lead: A pair of frustrating seasons collide Saturday in Ann Arbor, where Penn State and Michigan come in with a combined mark of 2-8. Add Pat Freiermuth to the list of players the Nittany Lions will be without for the rest of the year — he’s set to undergo season-ending surgery this week — and that increases the level of difficulty for a team that had genuine aspirations for the College Football Playoff following last season’s win in the Cotton Bowl.

Despite all the adversity the team has been facing this season, there are indications that the Nittany Lions will eventually breakthrough. James Franklin has talked about his players, and players generally, being resilient and able to bounce back from disappoint and setbacks.

Here’s what he said leading up to the game against Iowa about signs that his guys are showing resiliency:

“I think what I saw in the second half (against Nebraska). Now again, I know everybody wants four quarters. I do, too. Trust me. But I thought how we battled in the second half of our game this past week and gave ourselves a chance to win. I think we were (up) 17-3 in the second half. It’s obvious we’ve got to play better for four quarters, but I think that’s a sign. I think the feedback I get from the coaches and how the guys are in meetings, the things that I see, how are guys in the weight room, how they are in the locker room after games, how they are on the bus. All of it, with a lot of distractions.”

Part of those distractions, Franklin said, is the players’ inability to interact with their families as closely as they would be able to under non-COVID-19 circumstances. Normally, he said, players could kiss and hug their families before games and tailgate and celebrate with them after. None of that is possible this year, which increases the strain they’re all playing under.

Following the loss to Iowa, which dropped the team to its first 0-5 start in program history, standout receiver Jahan Dotson talked about having winning the week, winning the day, and winning the moment, breaking things down into a singular focus for whatever he and his teammates are facing.

“Whatever moment you’re in, win that moment,” he said. “We’ve got to start doing things with a winner’s mentality, and that’s pretty much it. We’ve just got to win the day. Come to practice every day, work, and just go 1-0.”

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions stop turning the ball over. This has been a theme all season, and quite possibly the biggest reason for Penn State’s winless record.

Michigan wins if: the Wolverines corral another first-half lead against the Nittany Lions. Penn State has proven it can mount a second-half comeback, it just hasn’t been enough to win.

Count on: the Nittany Lions coming out fighting. This is only a hunch, though after five games, chances are Penn State will be keyed up for a win.

Keep an eye on: tight end Brenton Strange. The freshman made his first career start against Iowa, catching a 28-yard touchdown pass from Sean Clifford. With Freiermuth out for the rest of the season, it’ll be imperative for other receivers to step up and provide more reliable options beyond Dotson.

Trivia tidbit: Sean Clifford is only 81 yards away from 4,000 career passing yards.

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Penn State Preview: Iowa

Jayson Oweh (28) and the Nittany Lions look for their first win of the season Saturday at Beaver Stadium against Iowa. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. on BTN. (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. Iowa, 3:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on BTN.

Venue: Beaver Stadium, where Penn State boasts an all-time record of 297-76.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 56 degrees and mostly cloudy.

All-time series: Penn State leads 17-12 and has won the last six games.

Last meeting (2019): Penn State won a slugfest in Iowa City, collecting a 17-12 victory. The Nittany Lions led 17-6 late in the fourth quarter before the Hawkeyes mounted a touchdown drive to close the gap with less than three minutes in the game.   

Throwback classic (2007): Penn State ended a five-game losing streak to Iowa with a 27-7 victory at Beaver Stadium. We highlighted that game earlier in the week on the blog, and the article features insight from letterman Rodney Kinlaw.

The lead: Who starts at quarterback for the Nittany Lions is something that all fans are wondering. Will Levis subbed in for Sean Clifford last Saturday at Nebraska, nearly completing a comeback after the Nittany Lions fell behind by 21. Whoever gets the call will lead Penn State against an Iowa team that’s been hard to pin down. The Hawkeyes opened the season with losses to Purdue and Northwestern, but who have responded by upending Michigan State and Minnesota by a combined score of 82-16.

One thing’s for sure: Penn State needs to play better in the first half. Do that, and that should make the game more manageable for either Clifford or Levis, and the entire team.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions create multiple turnovers and avoid giving up big plays. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras has thrown four picks early on, so if the Nittany Lions’ can disrupt his passing lanes, that should help cut down on Iowa’s explosiveness.

Iowa wins if: the Hawkeyes can push around the Nittany Lions’ offensive line. That area has struggled throughout parts of the season, including allowing a sack last week during Penn State’s potential game-tying play. Iowa is third in the conference with an average of 2.75 sacks per game, so the line’s performance takes on extra importance Saturday.

Count on: a close game, if past results are any indicator. The last three games against Iowa have been decided by a total of 13 points.

Keep an eye on: Jayson Oweh. The star sophomore already has 27 tackles, the most for a Penn State defense end through the first four games of the season since at least 2000.

Trivia tidbit: Pat Freiermuth has caught a pass in 29 straight games, tying him for the nation’s best mark for a tight end.

Penn State Preview: Nebraska

James Franklin and the Nittany Lions head west this weekend, looking for their first win of the season at Nebraska. (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: at Nebraska, noon kickoff (EST), broadcast on FS1.

Venue: Memorial Stadium.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 54 degrees, mostly cloudy with patches of sun.

All-time series: Nebraska leads 9-8, with the first meeting occurring in 1920.

Last meeting (2017): Penn State 56-44 at Beaver Stadium, where the Nittany Lions thoroughly outplayed the Huskers. Saquon Barkley set the program record for rushing touchdowns with 39, eclipsing Curt Warner. Barkley scored three times on the ground, as Penn State led 56-24 with about 10 minutes left in the game. Nebraska then scored three late touchdowns, including one as time expired.

Throwback classic (2002): Penn State bulldozed a Top-10 Nebraska squad 40-7 at Beaver Stadium, with Larry Johnson collecting his first 100-yard game and Rich Gardner electrifying the crowd with a pick-6 midway through the third quarter. Fans can look back on that game and hear from Gardner by visiting The Football Letter blog.

The lead: Off-field issues, which have largely been out of Penn State’s control, have dominated the early part of the conference schedule. Earlier this week, standout running back Journey Brown announced that he’s retiring from football because of a medical condition called hyperthropic cardiomypathy. Brown’s widely recognized among coaches and teammates as a team leader who’s always upbeat, positive, and inspiring. James Franklin called the news heartbreaking earlier this week, though he and many other Nittany Lions are confident that Brown will be successful in the future, whatever he chooses to do.

Additionally, Franklin said this week that he hasn’t handled not being around his family well, as his wife, Fumi, and their two daughters are not staying in State College for the foreseeable future, as a precaution to the COVID-19 pandemic. Franklin’s younger daughter, Addison, has sickle cell anemia and is immunocompromised.

All of this puts Penn State’s struggles on the field into perspective. In a season when there are challenges that nobody could have envisioned a year ago, there are plenty of reasons to support the team and everything they’re going through, on behalf of the University.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions can get the ground game going with the running backs. Devyn Ford leads that group through three games, gaining 141 yards on 37 carries. Getting a big game from Ford, or collectively from that group, will be key for the Nittany Lions.

Nebraska wins if: the Cornhuskers get out to an early lead. That’s what Ohio State and Maryland did the last two weeks, forcing the Nittany Lions to play from behind.

Keep an eye on: Parker Washington. The Penn State freshman wide receiver has caught three touchdowns in the season’s first three games, giving Sean Clifford another reliable option in addition to Jahan Dotson.

Trivia tidbit: Nebraska and Penn State 1,800 combined wins. Nebraska (902) has four more than Penn State (898).

Penn State Preview: Indiana

Pat Freiermuth and the Nittany Lions will kick off the much-anticipated 2020 season Saturday at Indiana. (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: at Indiana, 3:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on FS1.

Venue: Memorial Stadium.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 56 degrees with clear skies.

The line: Penn State –5.5

All-time series: Penn State leads 22-1.

Last meeting (2019): Penn State won 34-27 in Happy Valley.

Throwback classic (2016): Penn State continued its trend of coming from behind, overcoming a 10-point deficit in the second half en route to winning the Big Ten title. The Hoosiers had the ball late with a chance to tie, though Torrence Brown recovered a fumble in the end zone for the final 45-31 margin.

The lead: Football is back. Or more specifically, Big Ten football is back, and so are the Nittany Lions. Some of the many questions swirling around the team are: How will the rushing attack fare (presumably) without Journey Brown, who will reportedly might miss the entire season because of a medical condition discovered during the offseason. Will the defense suffer a setback without Micah Parsons? How sharp will the offense be, and will it look different with Kirk Ciarrocca coming in from Minnesota? What will it be like watching a game with no fans?

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions establish the passing game. Penn State’s depth at running back is well noted. The passing game, meanwhile, is a little more uncertain. Tight end Pat Freiermuth is actually the team’s lead returning receiver, though Jahan Dotson did start all 13 games last season. Along with Dotson, Cam Sullivan-Brown and Parker Washington are listed as the team’s three starting receivers, and how quickly that group can synch up with Sean Clifford will be critical.

Indiana wins if: the Hoosiers offense can keep Penn State’s defense guessing. Indiana is a fun team to watch. The Hoosiers score a lot of points, though they also are prone to allow a bunch, too, though their defense has shown signs of improvement. It’s difficult to see Indiana winning a fairly low-scoring game, so if the Hoosiers can score 35-plus, they have a chance to pull off the home upset.

Count on: Brandon Smith having an impact. He appeared in all 13 games last year as a true freshman, and is listed atop Penn State’s depth chart at outside linebacker. Smith checks in at 6-foot-3, 244 pounds, and has garnered plenty of praise from teammates and coaches. His trajectory is one reason why there’s optimism the defense won’t significantly regress with Parsons opting out, with the linebacker room featuring plenty of depth and talent.

Keep an eye on: the Penn State running backs in the receiving game. Getting them move involved catching passes out of the backfield has been something of a theme that emerged this summer, with players talking about how this year’s offense might differ with Ciarrocca.

Trivia tidbit: With Journey Brown expected to possibly miss the entire season, Penn State’s leading returning rusher is actually Clifford (552 yards on 116 carries).


John Patishnock — Penn State 37, Indiana 27

Vince Lungaro — Penn State 27, Indiana 23