Smash the State-an Illinois-Penn State Preview.


Joe Paterno began his career when Ron Zook was 12. By the time Zook had turned 19, Paterno had had three undefeated seasons and had won 6 bowl games. Zook has not even been to 6 bowl games in his 10-year career at Illinois and Florida. For all the talk that Paterno is slipping (he was born before Babe Ruth had hit 60 home runs!) he hasn’t had a losing season since 2004 and has his squad at 7-1 as they prepare to meet the Fighting Illini at home this Saturday.

The Seasons, Thus Far:
Illinois is in the midst of a 2-game tailspin, losing to Ohio State and Purdue without managing to score a point in the first half of either game. Our offense seems to have bogged down, only awakening when the situation is desperate. The Fighting Illini had thrown for 11 touchdowns in their 6 wins; they have just one passing TD in their two losses. We had 226 yards/game on the ground in our 6 wins; that number has plummeted to 118/game in the two losses. The defense has remained stout despite the offense’s struggles, giving up just 19 points per game during the streak. This has happened despite the D being on short fields quite often. Another bright spot has been the emergence of Jason Ford as being at least a competent option at running back. He’s been more valuable as a receiver than he had been previously. Against Purdue, Ford hauled in 5 catches for 69 yards. That’s more than half his total for the season and more than he totaled in the entire 2010 campaign.

Penn State has had a grindy sort of year, even with their gaudy 7-1 record. The Nittany Lions have been involved in a number of close games including squeakers against Indiana, Purdue and Temple. This troika is no one’s idea of football royalty. PSU seems to have adopted the late, lamented Al Davis’s mantra-“Just win, baby.” (slightly OT, but can you think of two coaches less alike than JoPa and Al? I certainly can’t.) The Lions have been doing it with defense; they rank 5th in FBS in scoring defense. The Nittany Lions rank 9th in passing yards given up and 6th in interceptions. The offense has been less efficient; they are just 90th in scoring among the 120 FBS schools. However, it bears remembering that among Penn State’s opponents are the top two scoring defenses in FBS: Temple (!!??!!) and Alabama (of course).
Paterno appears to have resolved the pressing issue of the QB position in favor of Matt McGloin, as McGloin has taken the vast majority of the snaps against their last two opponents.
The Three Fulcra:
How will McGloin fare against the Illini defense?
McGloin appears to be a clear upgrade over Rob Bolden. Bolden was the quarterback for the Illini victory last year in Happy Valley. He had a weak day, managing just 145 yards against an Illini defense that was decidedly mediocre against the pass. The next game, McGloin was the primary QB for the Lions and enters this week in the same position. One of the hallmarks of McGloin’s stewardship has been his ability to avoid the interception. He’s thrown 21 touchdowns versus 11 interceptions in his career. If you take out the 1 touchdown 5 interception debacle against Florida, his ration is a far more attractive 20-6. The Illini secondary is not known for its ball-hawking ways; its seven interceptions places it roughly at the median in the FBS. The Illini do pressure the quarterback effectively, something McGloin tends to deal with pretty well. He’s been sacked just twice this season, versus 21 sacks of Scheelhaase. EDGE: Penn State

Which defense reigns supreme?
Both defenses are very strong. Illinois has given up about 7 yards/game more than PSU against the pass, while both teams have given up 101.9 yards per game on the ground. The Nittany Lions have played a slightly tougher schedule, though this is heavily skewed by their loss to Alabama. The styles are decidedly different; PSU has a ballhawking secondary, while the Fighting Illini rely on a brutal pass rush to create havoc in opposing backfields. If one can imagine what each defense will do to each offense-McGloin will be throwing the ball away a lot, while Scheehaase will wind up with more rushing attempts than he or his coaches would prefer. It’s my impression that the Penn State defense will be asked to spend more time on the field than the Illini. That combined with the more diverse attack displayed by the Illini leads me to give the nod to Illinois. Edge: Illinois

The placekicking game:
The Fighting Illini have been blessed with the presence of one Derek Dimke. He’s incredibly accurate, having made all of his attempts this year. He also has a pretty big leg on kickoffs with 11 touchbacks this year out of 40 non-onside attempts. The Penn State kickers (and its never a good sign when you use a plural in that category) have been less efficient. Their kickoffs are about as good as the Illini’s, but they’ve missed an extra point and several field goals along the way. Part of this is due to what seems to have been a kicker controversy which has since been resolved, but Anthony Fera is still no Derek Dimke. This is more than likely going to be a close game, considering the relative excellence of the defenses as compared to the meh-ish-ness of the offenses. It could come down to kicking, and in this game, you have to give the Illini the advantage. EDGE: Illini.

The pick:
Sagarin has the Illini as 8-point dogs.
Howell has the Nittany Lions with a 70% chance to win.
The oddsmakers have us as 5-point dogs.

My assessment flies in the face of this conventional wisdom: Illinois 13, Penn State 10.
The Illini will start to turn this ship around.