FACTS & STATS: Site: Memorial Stadium (60,670) — Champaign, Illinois.
Television: ESPN2. Home Record: PSU 3-3, UI 4-2. Away Record: PSU 2-1, UI 0-4.
Neutral Record: PSU 1-0, UI 0-0. Conference Record: PSU 2-4, UI 1-5. Series
Record: Penn State leads, 17-4.
GAME NOTES: The Illinois Fighting Illini will try to keep their bowl hopes
alive on Saturday afternoon when they host the Penn State Nittany Lions in a
Big Ten Conference tilt.
Illinois has lost two straight and five of its last six games overall, and
that includes last weekend’s 30-14 home setback to Iowa. Still, the Fighting
Illini can qualify for a bowl with a victory here and another at Northwestern
in next weekend’s regular-season finale.
Penn State became bowl eligible with last week’s 30-13 triumph over Temple.
However, another victory or two would only help the team’s chances of securing
that coveted bowl game after the NCAA decided in September to lift its four-
year postseason ban stemming from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Penn State has dominated the head-to-head series with Illinois, winning 17 of
21 previous meetings.
Entering their matchup with Indiana two weeks ago, the Nittany Lions had not
had a 100-yard rusher all season. But Bill Belton ended that with 137 yards on
the ground against the Hoosiers, then posted a 92-yard effort with a touchdown
on 19 carries last week against Temple. Akeel Lynch also set a career-high
with 130 yards and a TD on 18 carries against the Owls. Not surprisingly, Penn
State emerged victorious in both games. Still, the wild card remains
quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who continues to regress in his sophomore
campaign. Hackenberg completed only 12-of-26 passes for 112 yards and two
interceptions last week. Over the last six games, he has thrown only three
touchdowns against nine interceptions, while taking 27 sacks.
The Penn State defense tied a season-high with five takeaways against Temple.
True freshman Grant Haley returned his first career pick 30 yards for a
touchdown to open up a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead. Senior linebacker Mike
Hull notched 10 tackles for his sixth game with double-digit stops. Hull leads
the Big Ten with 11.1 tackles per game and has been a big reason why Penn
State ranks among the nation’s stingiest defenses. On the season, the Nittany
Lions rank first nationally in both rushing defense (83.1 ypg) and pass
efficiency defense (96.89), and they also rank third in total defense (265.6
ypg) and fourth in scoring defense (16.2 ppg).
Last week, Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt got his first taste of game action
since suffering a broken leg against Purdue on Oct. 4. But he did not exactly
pick up where he left off prior to the injury, as Lunt completed only 14-of-25
passes for 102 yards and one touchdown. Reilly O’Toole tossed the team’s other
touchdown, and freshman wideout Mike Dudek was on the receiving end of both
scores as he finished with 80 yards on six catches. Dudek has been a pleasant
surprise, and two weeks ago he broke Arrelious Benn’s school record for
receiving yards by a freshman. Dudek has 787 receiving yards on 51 catches
this season, and he ranks third among FBS true freshmen wideouts in receiving
yards per game (78.7).
The Illini defense is anchored by linebacker Mason Monheim, who leads the team
and ranks second in the Big Ten with 9.8 tackles per game. His 15 stops last
week represented a game-high, while teammates Zane Petty (13 tackles) and
Taylor Barton (12 tackles, FF) also posted double-digit tackles.
Unfortunately, Illinois allowed the Hawkeyes to rack up 587 yards of total
offense, including a season-high 304 on the ground. The unit ranks 114th
nationally in total defense (493.5 ypg) and 121st against the run (266.9 ypg).
With Penn State recently rediscovering its ground game, the Illini will need
to show some serious improvement in that department if they hope to stay in
contention for a bowl bid.
Penn State has been a tough team to figure out this season, with a four-game
win streak followed by a four-game skid followed by back-to-back wins. The
Nittany Lions match up well against Illinois, but they need Hackenberg to
limit his mistakes here in a tough road environment.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Penn State 23, Illinois 10