Illinois at Penn State: Preview and Predictions

SHARE Illinois at Penn State: Preview and Predictions
SHARE Illinois at Penn State: Preview and Predictions

The facts: 11 a.m., ESPN, 560-AM.

The records: Illinois 3-4, 0-3 Big Ten; Penn State 4-3, 1-2.

The story line: The Nittany Lions have lost two of their last three games by blowout, most recently a 63-14 debacle at Ohio State that cast Bill O’Brien’s team in a particularly unflattering light.

“Losing sucks,” the coach said this week. “It’s not fun for anybody.”

He doesn’t know the half of it.

Losing is all Illinois’ Tim Beckman has done in nearly a season and a half of Big Ten action. Broken record time: The losing streak in league games is at 17 for the Illini (only 0-11 for Beckman), who may or may not be significantly improved over a season ago. Frankly, it gets increasingly harder to tell.

“One of our goals — to get to a bowl game — is still achievable,” Beckman said. “It’s one game at a time, and we’ve got a five-game season in front of us.”

It starts with what Beckman describes as a typically physical Penn State team. Many who’ve watched the Nittany Lions in 2013 would argue that they’re soft up the middle defensively and unimpressive overall on that side of the ball. They have a true freshman quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, who has thrown eight interceptions and completed only 57.8 percent of his passes. A chance here for the Illini? Maybe in theory.

The line: Penn State by 11.

Five predictions:

1. The star of this game will be Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson, a true No. 1 guy who was the best player in the Big Ten at the position last year and may well be again. Robinson caught 12 balls for 173 yards and a touchdown last weekend at Ohio State. He’ll feast on Illinois’ young, thus far unimpressive cornerbacks whether or not V’Angelo Bentley, who’s listed as questionable with an ankle injury, is able to play.

2.Penn State’s top two running backs, Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, are separated by only three carries (95 for Zwinak, 92 for Belton) this season. There’s no question the 240-pound Zwinak has a nose for the goal line — he has eight rushing touchdowns, to three for Belton — but Belton is better suited to torch the Illini defense. At 205 pounds, Belton is fast and quick like the backs who’ve done the most damage against the Illini. The junior will have the third 100-yard game of his career.

3.Running back Josh Ferguson, who at times has been Illinois’ most effective and impressive offensive player, will bounce back from two straight down games with a strong performance. Penn State isn’t nearly as good as usual up the middle of its defense. Ferguson is athletic enough to exploit that.

4.The Nittany Lions are better than Illinois at creating turnovers (isn’t everybody?) but much worse at committing them. True freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg has thrown eight interceptions, and PSU has fumbled away the football eight times. Do the Illini actually have a chance to win the turnover battle? Yes! But they won’t.

5.You’ll watch this game and be left thinking Penn State really isn’t all that good, and you know why? Because Penn State really isn’t all that good. It has beaten one team with a winning record, and that’s only because Michigan was so determined to blow it three weeks ago in a 43-40, four-overtime defeat in Happy Valley.

Greenberg’s pick: Penn State, 34-17.

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