Missouri – L (52-42)
Eastern Illinois – W (47-21)
La. Lafayette – W (20-17)
Gone to the Steelers in the first round of the NFL draft was running back Rashard Mendenhall and a lot of the Illinois offense. Juice Williams is back as is dynamic wide receiver Arrelious Benn. The D has been banged up but they are coming into the Penn State game the healthiest they've been all year. The defense has gone from one of the Big Ten's best a year ago to one of the worst (statistically speaking) ranking at or near the bottom in virtually every statistical category, most likely because the loss of this guy:
Williams was not supposed to be the answer to the loss of the aforementioned Mendenhall but things have turned out that way. Juice has carried the ball one more time than every down back Daniel Dufrene and 19 more times than he did at this point a year ago. Dufrene is averaging 6.7 yards per carry but he lacks Mendenhall's explosiveness and doesn't have a touchdown in three games. True freshmen running backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure have good size and may finally be coming along. Look for Illinois to establish the inside running game with all three backs, Penn State will be most vulnerable between the tackles and the Illini interior lineman are experienced and solid and MLB Josh Hull has had trouble shedding blocks.
The main playmaker on offense (outside of Williams) is wide receiver Arrelious Benn and although he is the team's leading receiver, Will Judson has the most yardage and two touchdowns – Benn has yet to score through the air, although he's scored twice on the ground.
Juice is much improved this season completing almost 60% of his passes. He threw for 450 yards in the loss to Missouri but in the last game he struggled, completing only 13 of his 25 passes for 147 yards with a TD and an interception. In two games against Penn State Williams is 24 for 57 with a touchdown and four interceptions but it's his option ability that will keep Tom Bradley awake at night, especially if Penn State allows Illinois to establish the inside running game. There is a HUGE red flag for Illinois at the right tackle position where Ryan Palmer is out with a foot injury and will be replaced by true freshman Jeff Allen. Oh did I mention that is the side that Aaron Maybin and his Big Ten leading six sacks plays on? Thought I might mention that.
Strong Safety Donsay Hardeman and DT Josh Brent are back this week which moves Illinois best D-lineman Will Davis, back to his true position of DE (HT: Paint the Town Orange via Zombie Nation). Linebacker Brit Miller leads the team and the Big Ten in tackles averaging 12 per game. But the Illini D has been pretty horrid giving up a league worst 30 points per game which ranks them somewhere around 94th in the nation. They are also 10th in the conference in rushing D, pass efficiency D, total D, and turnover margin, so yeah, they've not been good.
Statistically the return game hasn't been anything to write home about but statistics be damned Arrelious Benn returned one last year on Penn State and if ya haven't noticed, the Nittany Lions haven't been that great on kickoff coverage. Punter Anthony Santella is only averaging a little over 38 yards a punt but kicker Matt Eller is 4 for 5 on field goals converting two over 40 yards.
It's a night game it's a white out and it's Penn State's first big test so don't expect the slow start we saw last week. I would think the Zooker would want to take the crowd out of it so look for Illinois to come out and try to pound the ball between the tackles and throw a couple wrinkles in with Benn or Williams running some misdirection plays early to keep Penn State's D honest. Honestly this game could come down to special teams, the Nittany Lions are terrible covering kickoffs which probably means they'll kick it short and give the Illini good field position. On the other hand Illinois' punter isn't fantastic so Penn State could have a chance at some decent punt returns. Illinois' defense, injury riddled or not, has been downright horrid so I think Penn State's offense can put points on the board as long as they don't turn the ball over like last year. I'm really looking forward to seeing the matchup between Aaron Maybin and Illinois inexperienced right tackle, they'll probably have to double team him which means someone else will get single coverage and it gives Penn State the option to blitz an extra man probably free. Containing Juice Williams will be the defense's number one concern, if Penn State keeps him in the pocket and forces him to beat them with his arm I think Penn State wins, I'm not sold on Juice's passing acumen yet.