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College football: 10 things to watch on Saturday

CHAMPAIGN — The 10 things I’ll be looking for in Saturday’s Week 13 action:

1. Penn State’s defense is a tough nut to crack, one of the better statistical units in the country and particularly adept at stopping the run and creating turnovers in the passing game. It’s going to be next to impossible for Illinois (4-6) — in a must-win situation — to run between the tackles or find success with quarterback Wes Lunt trying to fit balls into tight windows to a receivers who, frankly, don’t play with any real physicality. For the Illini to win, they’ll need to keep the Nittany Lions (6-4) off-balance with some funky play-calling.

2. Illinois also must create some short fields for its offense by forcing PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg into mistakes. Hackenberg has thrown a Big Ten-high 14 interceptions this season. It’s desperation time for coach Tim Beckman and defensive coordinator Tim Banks — they can’t be afraid to get a little blitz-crazy.

3. Louisville has a ton of speed on offense — seriously, get ready for it, Notre Dame fans — and that could present big trouble for Brian VanGorder’s defese. Louisville also has Gerod Holliman, the nation’s leader with 13 interceptions, ready to pounce on quarterback Everett Golson’s mistakes. Still, I like the Irish to play their most complete game since the loss at Florida State on Oct. 18. It should be just enough to hold off the Cardinals, who like the Irish are 7-3.

4. Something tells me if Irish coach Brian Kelly gets a chance to go up 12 points with an extra-point kick, he’ll swallow his two-point play sheet.

5. Did Northwestern (4-6) expend its full reserve of emotion in the overtime upset at Notre Dame last week? If so, Purdue (3-7) could be dangerous in West Lafayette. I’m taking the Wildcats by 14 but admit to being a bit wary of this situation.

6. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon is chasing the top single-season rushing record in the sport’s history, but first comes a chance to break ex-Badgers Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne’s Big Ten mark of 2,109 yards. Gordon needs 201 yards at Iowa to top the Great Dayne. If he gets to 2,110 whole going for 200-plus, he’ll have a commanding Heisman lead no matter what Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota does against Colorado.

7. Game within the game: Missouri’s Shane Ray will be an interesting guy to keep tabs on Saturday night. A 245-pound junior rush end who has stepped into Michael Sam’s old role for the Tigers, Ray leads the Southeastern Conference in sacks with 11½ and will be facing a Tennessee team that has allowed the most sacks —33 — in the league. Ray’s next sack will push him past Sam and Aldon Smith for the Mizzou single-season record.

8. How rudely will Ohio State — sixth in the College Football Playoff rankings — treat Indiana at the Horseshoe in Columbus? No amount of points will be too many for Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes as they try to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the early-September loss to Virginia Tech. Vegas likes the Buckeyes to score right around 50. I’ll take the over, please.

9. Remember Kaelin Clay, the Utah player who foolishly set the ball down before reaching the goal line against Oregon a couple of weeks back? Dude has three punt returns for touchdowns (and should have four) and has run a kickoff back for a score. Check him out against Arizona — he’s electric.

10. Back to Illinois for a moment. A Penn State writer I really like described Beckman this week as a “used-car salesman.” There’s a lot to criticize about Beckman’s performance and his public persona, but the old used-car bit just doesn’t fit. If he loses Saturday — and even if he knows he’ll be fired because of it — he’ll look ahead to one final game at Northwestern, talk about how a fifth victory would constitute improvement over last year’s 4-8 record and not behave as though the sky has fallen. And you know what? It won’t be an act at all.


Twitter: @slgreenberg