Penn State Football: Lions open Big Ten play at Illinois

After NCAA president Mark Emmert levied unprecedented sanctions on the Penn State football program in July, coaches flocked to Happy Valley to try and pry Nittany Lions players from the program.

One of the coaches outside of the players apartments on the Penn State campus trying to get them to change allegiances was Illinois’ Tim Beckman.

Fast forward two months and Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, and his players, will invade Champaign looking for some measure of revenge for the infringement upon their campus, program and lives.

This week it’s personal for coach Bill O’Brien and his Nittany Lions.

Add both teams’ Big Ten conference opener, combined with a recent history of exciting games in the series, and you’ve got one heck of a college football game for a noon kickoff at Memorial Stadium.

Penn State (2-2) is coming off back-to-back wins over Navy and Temple while Illinois (2-2) drags themselves back to Memorial Stadium, where they were embarrassed by Louisiana Tech 52-24 last Saturday. While the Nittany Lions’ two losses (Ohio, at Virginia) were by a combined 11 points, the Illini’s two losses (at Arizona St., La. Tech) have come by an astounding 59 points. In Illinois’ defense, both losses have come to teams that are a combined 6-1 so far in 2012, while Virginia has lost twice since edging the Lions by one point.

Records can usually be tossed out in conference games, especially in ones where teams have extra incentives on the line like O’Brien and Penn State do after having the Illinois coaching staff trying to poach its players during the summer. Saturday will mark the 20th meeting all-time between the schools, with the Nittany Lions holding a 15-4 series lead. Illinois coach Tim Beckman hopes to fare better against Penn State than his predecessor, Ron Zook, who was 2-5 in his seven years at Illinois against the Nittany Lions.

The storyline remains status quo for Penn State in 2012 as it has for so many years before: defense reigns. The Nittany Lion defense is surrendering just 15.2 points per game, good for 24th in the nation. They’re also giving up just 3.6 yards per carry while keeping opponents under 212 yards passing per contest so far in 2012. Aside from the season opener, where the Lions were burned for 500 total yards by Ohio’s offense and dual-threat quarterback Tyler Tettleton, the defense has looked impressive in stifling Virginia, Navy and Temple in consecutive weeks. Michael Mauti leads the gang with 42 total tackles through four games, including two for loss, two forced fumbles and an interception. The senior linebacker was recently named to the Bednarik Watch List, the Bednarik Award is given to the nation’s most outstanding linebacker. Teammate and fellow senior Gerald Hodges is also on the watch list for the award.

While the Penn State defense has been stout so far in 2012, they’ll have a conference foe to contend with on Saturday, and one with an impressive passing attack, which is something they haven’t seen since being upset by Ohio in their opener. Illinois quarterback Reilly O’Toole has completed an outstanding 78 percent of his passes so far in 2012 for more than 500 yards and six touchdowns against two interceptions in four games while filling in for injured starter Nathan Scheelhaase. Scheelhaase missed two games while nursing an ankle injury and was pulled in last weeks game after fumbling and throwing an interception in the first quarter. Coach Beckman called the senior, “His man” earlier this week an reiterated that the quarterback will start against the Nittany Lions. The good news for Illini fans is that Scheelhaase has played well against Penn State in the past, and his dual-threat ability will cause headaches for the defense.

Penn State boasts an impressive aerial onslaught (really!) thanks to Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson.

For Penn State, there’s no doubt who’ll be under center. It’s Matt McGloin’s team now, and he’s taken the opportunity and run with it. The senior has excelled under coach O’Brien’s too-ledge, throwing for 1,006 yards and nine touchdowns while completing close to 60 percent of his attempts. A former noted gunslinger, McGloin has thrown just two interceptions in 140 attempts in 2012, and one of them was tipped. While the offense has leaned heavily on McGloin and breakout receiver Allen Robinson so far in 2012, the Lions will get starting tailback Bill Belton back for the first time since the season opener on Saturday, adding to an already potent offense. Belton sprained his ankle against Ohio and hasn’t played since.

If Penn State wants to escape Champaign with a win, they’ll need to contain Scheelhaase and keep him in the pocket. The Lions held him in check in Happy Valley last season, and came away with a close win. The defense is also eager to prove they can stop a dual-threat quarterback after being shredded by Ohio’s Tyler Tettleton in the opener. The Nittany Lion offense should be to potent (can’t believe I’m saying this) and explosive for an Illini defense that has given up 40 points twice already this season. Combine Penn State’s offensive and defensive advantages with their added motivation for victory, and they should come out with a W.

Matchup to watch: 

Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase vs. Penn State’s front seven. Scheelhaase threw for just 63 yards and rushed for 83 more against Penn State in last years loss, he’ll have to be much more effective to get a win this time around. Penn State’s struggles in defending a similar quarterback in their opener  were evident, and they’ll have to play more disciplined football as well as stick to their assignments to get a better result this time around.

Players to watch: 

Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti. Mauti has been everywhere so far in 2012, and he’ll have to do so again if the Lions want to stop Nathan Scheelhaase. Nobody was more disappointed than Mauti after failing to stop Ohio’s Tyler Tettleton in the opener. Look for the senior to step up and make a couple big plays on Saturday.

Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase. Illinois’ offense looked nice under O’Toole’s guidance the past few weeks, but Scheelaase has the athletic ability that defense’s fear. When he’s on, he’s a terrific dual-threat from under center that can make big plays with his arm or his feet. He reminds me of Terrelle Pryor-lite, but more inconsistent. But if he’s on, watch out.

Penn State tailback Bill Belton. Why not? After taking over Silas Redd’s mantle in the summer, Belton was electric against Ohio in the opener before injuring his ankle and missing the next three games. The rising sophomore comes back with a vengeance and shows the rest of the Big Ten that Penn State now has a ground game to compliment McGloin’s aerial assault.

Prediction: Penn State 31 Illinois 17