Penn State Football: What to Watch for at Illinois
Remember that time Tim Beckman sent eight of his assistants to State College in an effort to gauge the interest of any Penn State player to consider a free transfer to Illinois in the wake of the NCAA sanctions?
Even if Penn State isn’t publicly talking about it this week, it certainly hasn’t been forgotten. Such antics make for a great sidebar, but it doesn’t particularly have much bearing on what happens Saturday at Memorial Stadium — on the field, at least. Motivation is a nice buzzword to throw around, but there is no scientific proof that shows that an extra desire to stick it to someone directly leads to scoring points and preventing the opponent from scoring points.
By taking the high road and resting its tongue, Penn State did allow for less public distraction. But what went on inside the walls of the Lasch Football Building and out on the practice field this week — meetings, walk-throughs, practice, film study — will be why Penn State leaves its Big Ten opener at Memorial Stadium 1-0 or 0-1.
The recruiting tactics of the Illini? Would just make a win that much sweeter.
So, here's three areas to watch Saturday:
1. Offensive line play: The unit has been solid all season, allowing just three sacks through four games, best in the Big Ten. But Illinois has a dangerous defensive front four led by Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. It’s been a renaissance season for quarterback Matt McGloin under the new coaching of Bill O’Brien and Charlie Fisher, and pass protection has certainly aided his development. Left tackle Donovan Smith is back after missing the previous two weeks with an ankle injury.
2. Running back committee: O’Brien said earlier this week that he’ll likely play two or three running backs on Saturday. His message to the group on Monday? “Hey, look, guys, we got five guys that are good players, tough guys, love coaching them, so let's go out and practice well and then we’ll decide as a coaching staff who's going to play on Saturday.” Bill Belton is back in action for the first time since the Sept. 1 season opener. Derek Day, the No. 2 behind Belton out of preseason camp is back from a shoulder injury. Mike Zordich, Zach Zwinak and Curtis Dukes all were capable fill-ins when called upon. Penn State’s running backs, to start, need to stay healthy. Beyond that, it’ll be interesting to see when Penn State employs the downhill running of Zordich/Zwinak and the shiftiness of a Belton.
3. Secondary Progress: It would not be a surprise to see Illinois employ both the zone-read threat of Nathan Scheelhaase and the traditional drop-back passer named Reilly O’Toole, who is completing 78 percent of his passes for a quarterback rating of 158.9 in three meaningful games of action. Penn State’s two losses saw major blips in the secondary, particularly on third down and downfield. Few truly gifted throwing quarterbacks take up residence on Big Ten campuses this season. Limiting O’Toole would be a big confidence boost for the unit the rest of the way.