Game Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions vs Illinois Fighting Illini

By Matthew Filipovits on December 18, 2020 at 8:59 am
Nov 14, 2020; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Isaiah Williams (1) throws a pass to tight end Luke Ford (82) as Rutgers Scarlet Knights linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi (3) defends during the second half at SHI Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
© Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
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The Nittany Lions have turned things around and a have chance to close out Beaver Stadium on a high note. One of just two Big Ten teams set to play all nine scheduled games, Penn State will host an Illinois team that hasn't won in a month and has already parted ways with its head coach.

  Penn State Illinois
2020 Record 3-5 2-5
Head Coaches James Franklin (83-43, 59-28 with Penn State) Rod Smith (Interim Head Coach)
Kickoff 5:30 PM EDT 
Television FS1
Stream Watch Fox Sports
spread Penn State -15.0

a Two quarterback attack

The Illinois offense has a rough season, ranking No. 13 in the conference in total offense and dead last in passing offense. Between the four quarterbacks who have appeared in a game, the Illini are completing just 48% of their passes for 1103 yards and eight touchdowns. They've only thrown three picks but that stat is not nearly as impressive when you take into account they've run over 100 more times than passed this season.

Michigan transfer Brandon Peters has taken more of the reps, but the Illini went with Isaiah Williams after the offense sputtered against Northwestern last week. He completed four of his eight attempts and threw a touchdown, while also adding in 38 yards on the ground. Expect both guys to get some run this weekend, but Williams should get the lion's share of the playing time since he adds a running component to their attack. 

A winning formula for Penn state

For the first time all season, Penn State's depth chart featured no changes from last week to this week. After an abysmal 0-5 start, the Nittany Lions have found the right lineup to turn things around. That should continue as we close out the regular season and look ahead to a potential bowl game.

The Nittany Lions are still a bit banged up, so James Franklin and Co. should stick with their strategy of playing young players and let the vets heal up in the event of a bowl game. Experience is only going to help these guys going forward and if you can still a few wins while building that confidence up, it's really a no-lose situation.

Lovie Smith Out, Rod Smith in (Temporarily)

Sadly, the finest beard in college football is out of the Big Ten. Illinois and Lovie Smith parted ways last week after an up-and-down five-year run. Illinois has been a hard place to win and Lovie did about as well as anyone could have asked for. He was also beloved by his players, something which goes a long way in this business. His lasting legacy in Champagne figures to be the upgraded facilities that will make his successor's chances for success higher.

47-year-old Rod Smith is serving as active head coach. He's been the Illini's offensive coordinator for the past three seasons after spending the previous six years in the same role at Arizona. While experienced, it's a big jump from coordinator to head coach and there are surely going to be some bumps in the road. Penn State needs to take advantage of that inexperience if they want to win as convincingly as many feel they could.

Build your new year's eve plans around a bowl game if...

  • Sean Clifford shows he's put his early-season woes behind him. Sean Clifford has not been perfect this season, but there's no denying he has looked a lot better over the past month. There's still a lot of questions surrounding Clifford in this offense, but a strong day on Saturday could allow the staff to some concerns on the back burner.
  • The offensive line continues to dominate. This was a key to the game last week, but I'm keeping it around again. This unit is figuring things out and doing it fast. Penn State should dominate in the trenches once again and with any luck, the score will be out of hand relatively early and some young guys and give it a go. If those second and third teamers can keep this offense humming, it's time to start looking at this unit as a strength.
  • The secondary comes to play. This unit got picked apart in the first half last week. It's a story we've told seemingly dozens of times, but this one hinges on Penn State's secondary playing up to their potential. The Illini's top receiving threat, Josh Imatorbhebhe, has opted out, so this matchup is a lot easier than it would normally be. Still, this group needs to perform to change the narrative.

Drink eggnog until you can no longer remember penn state's record if...

  • The play calling still looks stale. At this point, Kirk Ciarrocca needs to have this offense humming. There has been enough to install and learn the playbook, so now it's about the quality of the play calling. If the Nittany Lions still struggle early on or maybe more importantly, in the red zone, it may be time to reevaluate some aspects of this offense.
  • Another dual-threat quarterback shreds this defense. Brent Pry's defenses have struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks for a long time and Isaiah Williams will look to become the latest to do so. Penn State's defensive line and linebackers need to be aware of Williams at all times or this Illini offense could rip off just enough big plays to make this one uncomfortable.
  • More injuries pile up. Penn State has been absolutely decimated by injuries this entire season, on both sides of the ball. With the season winding down, it's important Penn State keeps its guys healthy so they will be ready for either spring ball or to maximize their window to show off their talents to NFL scouts. If more guys go down with injuries, we could start to see a lot of young players who just aren't ready get on the field before they should.

Prediction in gif form

At long last, the 2020 regular season is over. It was a long ride, but at least it ended on a high note.

The Nittany Lions are going to come out and run all over the Illini, with Keyvone Lee leading the way. Sean Clifford takes advantage of a run-wary defense and is able to take the top off the Illinois defense a couple of times and throws two touchdowns in the first half. Penn State's defense plays pretty well, but the secondary has its usual struggles. The Nittany Lions head into the half up 24-7. 

With things under control, James Franklin and Co. are able to put things in cruise and start to rotate in some young players and try out some exciting things with the offense. It won't always work, but the 2021 picture will start to become a bit clearer by the day's end. Will Levis airs things out late for a fourth-quarter touchdown and Penn State's defense gets a defensive score to round out the perfect end to a horrible regular season. Penn State wins 45-13.

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