2011 Illinois Fighting Illini Football

Big Ten football fans

Illinois @ Penn State Football Preview



The smell of history is in the air this week in University Park, Pennsylvania. So is the smell of an unexpected chance to claim a Big Ten division championship.

When the Penn State Nittany Lions host the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday, they’ll be playing for the record books… and for the chance to stay ahead of the pack in the first year of the Big Ten’s 12-team configuration.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno could become the winningest coach in Division I history on Saturday when the Nittany Lions welcome Illinois to Beaver Stadium. Paterno tied Grambling legend Eddie Robinson with his 408th career victory last week at Northwestern. The Lions shut out the Wildcats in the second half in a 34-24 win. Penn State is 7-1, 4-0 in the Big Ten, and has a chance to win its seventh game in a row. A team that averages only 23.3 points per game – 89th in the 120-member Football Bowl Subdivision – has used its defense and a lot of late-game pluck to somehow stay ahead of the curve in this year’s Big Ten. While the credentialed Wisconsin Badgers limp along at 2-1 in the Big Ten, Penn State’s 4-0 record gives the Blue and White football family the belief that it can remain in the division title chase until the very last week of the regular season. This development is hard to believe given the paucity of point production from PSU’s offense, but Paterno’s defense – led by longtime coordinator Tom Bradley – has been able to get the job done with remarkable consistency.

Illinois (6-2) has lost two games in a row. The Illini turned in arguably their worst performance of the season last week, losing 21-14 at Purdue. Illinois fell behind 21-0 in the first half, and did not score until almost four minutes into the fourth quarter. Illinois started the season 6-0 for the first time since 1951. Now 2-2 in the conference, Illinois’ Big Ten title hopes are fading quickly. Two weeks ago, the Illini lost 17-7 at home against Ohio State, and that game clearly set in motion the downward spiral that’s affecting the program under head coach Ron Zook.

Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase struggled last week in West Lafayette against Purdue. His confidence in tatters after the Ohio State game, Scheelhaase failed to rebound versus the Boilermakers. He wound up throwing for just 217 yards and no touchdowns, carrying the ball 13 times for only 16 yards. His job figures to be even tougher this week, too. The Lions rank fifth nationally in scoring defense.


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Penn State will continue to rotate quarterbacks Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden, although McGloin took every snap in the win over Northwestern, completing 17 of 26 passes for 192 yards. Running back Silas Redd was the key to the Lions’ offense last week, rushing for 164 yards on 18 carries. Redd has rushed for over 100 yards in four straight games.

Penn State’s approach can be simple: Make Illinois implode. As long as the Nittany Lions take care of the ball, they should be able to lift JoePa to yet another milestone… and preserve their entirely unexpected division lead for one more week.


By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer



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