On Saturday, Illinois (2-2, 0-1 in the Big Ten) faces Penn State (3-2, 0-1) during the Illini's first true road game of the 2010 season.

Fighting the Fighting Illini: Joe Pa's Penn State Nittany Lions, Part I

This weekend, Illinois heads to State College, Pennsylvania to battle a struggling but talented Penn State team that is coming off a tough loss at Iowa.

If Illinois can play as well as it did against the #2 Ohio State Buckeyes last weekend and eliminate some penalties, the Illini stand a real chance.

In preparation of the Illinois-Penn State game, here is Writing Illini’s preview of the Nittany Lions.

In the next day or so, we will continue to preview the Nittany Lions by trading five questions with fellow Fansided blogger Ben Jones at Victory Bell Rings.

As for now, here’s what we have for you.

How Penn State Fared in 2009 and So Far in 2010

The Nittany Lions entered 2009 with high hopes for a national championship run (Penn State last won a national championship in 1986).

Penn State was ranked 8th in the nation in the preseason and had a relatively light schedule, with cupcake non-conference opponents and all of its tough conference foes at home.

The Nittany Lions won their first 3 games in style, by a combined score of 90-20, and were ranked as high as 4th in the nation.

Then, on September 26th, an unranked Iowa team (that would finish the season 11-2 and get as high as 4th in the polls itself) shocked the Nittany Lions 21-10 in Not So Happy Valley, thus ending Penn State’s hopes for a run at the title.

Penn State would finish the season 11-2, also falling to #5 Ohio State at home but beating LSU in the Citrus Bowl.

The Nittany Lions had 6 players selected in the 2009 NFL Draft and lost a talented senior class that included star quarterback Daryll Clark.

This year’s squad is headed by a true freshman under center.

Rob Bolden is the first freshman ever to start at the quarterback position under Joe Paterno. In fact, he is the team’s first freshman quarterback since Shorty Miller started for the Nittany Lions in 1910.

While the team started the year ranked 14th in the nation, the Nittany Lions are not ranked heading into this weekend.

Of course, the 3-2 Nittany Lions did lose at #1 Alabama and at #18 Iowa (a tough schedule to say the least) but were almost upset earlier in the season at home by the Temple Owls.

Illinois- Penn State Football Series History

Illinois had only played Penn State four times before the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993.

The two teams have met 13 times since.

Penn State holds a strong lead on the series; the Nittany Lions are 14-3 all-time against the Fighting Illini.

While the two conference foes do not have much of a rivalry due to the relatively short time that Penn State has been in the conference, one thing that has not changed is the opposing coach.

Joe Paterno has been Penn State’s head coach for all but three of the two teams’ meetings, and he holds a 12-2 record against the Illini.

The Illini have never won a game at Penn State. They are 3-7 at home, 0-6 at State College, and 0-1 at neutral sites.

As this Penn State team has already had some close calls at home, Illinois actually stands a chance.

Of course, the real question will be if Illinois’ redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase can stand the pressure of playing his first road game at the second largest and arguably the most intimidating college stadium in the nation.

Key Matchups

The following matchups will play important roles as to what team emerges victorious this weekend.

Illinois Secondary vs. Rob Bolden

After recording the team’s first 2 interceptions of the season against the Buckeyes, the Illinois defense is brimming with confidence, with Bolden presenting an excellent opportunity to increase that total.

The true freshman has already thrown 6 picks this season, including 1 against Youngstown State and 2 against Kent State. That is 2 more than Scheelhaase has thrown against much tougher opposition.

If Illinois can create some turnovers and give the offense more opportunities, an Illini upset is not that much of a stretch.

The Penn State Run Game vs. the Illinois Run Defense

While Penn State lost a lot of its passing game after last season, its running game looked like it had improved if anything heading into this season.

The Nittany Lions returned senior running back Evan Royster, who is poised to break several school records for rushing, and most of their offensive line as well.

While Royster has struggled early this season, rushing for more than 60 yards only once in 2010, he still poses a big threat.

Illinois can not get too caught up trying to rattle Bolden and overlook the run game, or Royster and the Nittany Lions will make the Illini defense pay.

Nathan Scheelhaase vs. The Penn State Defense

While the Penn State offense has been unimpressive thus far, the Nittany Lions’ defense has still looked pretty much like a dominant Joe Paterno-defense that people have grown accustomed to.

The Nittany Lions already have 6 interceptions and 8 sacks on the year.

Scheelhaase will have to work hard to overcome both the hostile road atmosphere and the powerful Penn State defense if he is to lead Illinois to an upset victory.

Three Illini Players To Watch

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase

Scheelhaase will have another chance to show what he is made of this weekend.

He has the very real opportunity to become the first Illinois quarterback to win a game in Beaver Stadium. However, it will not be easy.

Scheelhaase has looked and played more like an upperclassman than a freshman in his first four contests and now is the time to see if he can keep making the big plays on the road.

If Scheelhaase can limit his turnovers and convert on third downs, Illinois should come out of the weekend above .500 again.

Running Back Mikel Leshoure

After Ohio State broke the Illinois junior running back’s 4 game streak of 110+ rushing yards (he still racked up 80 yards against the nation’s 8th best rushing defense), Leshoure is looking to get back on track against Penn State.

While the Nittany Lions are no slouches themselves, coming in at 31st in the nation in rushing defense, Leshoure should have a big game.

If LeShoure can eclipse 100 yards and help Scheelhaase by converting on second down and third-and-short situations, the Illini will be able to open up its playbook and get the passing game more involved.

Martez Wilson/Trulon Henry

Wilson and Henry share this spot because they worked together to help the defense do as well as it did against the #2 Buckeyes.

Wilson recorded another sack against the Buckeyes and got into the backfield often, forcing bad passes. Henry took full advantage of the Illinois pressure from the front seven by recording 2 interceptions and 4 tackles.

If this duo can once again lead the defense in pressuring a less experienced and less talented quarterback in Bolden, they should create a couple of extra opportunities for the Illini offense to put some points on the board.

Alright.

Coming tomorrow, Part II of Writing Illini’s preview of the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Until then.

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