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5 keys vs. Illinois: Lions must finish drives and protect McGloin
September 28, 2012 - Cory Giger
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Five things to look for as Penn State tries to win its third straight overall and its Big Ten opener against an Illinois team coming off a blowout loss at home to Louisiana Tech.
SUBHD: No. 1: Finish drives
The Nittany Lions should be able to move the ball on the Illini defense, which hasn't blitzed much and has a subpar secondary, but they have to be efficient in the red zone and not let scoring chances slip away.
The 2007 trip to Illinois comes to mind, when Anthony Morelli and the PSU offense did well all day between the 20s but made mistake after mistake in the red zone and lost, 27-20. Penn State can't afford that Saturday in what should be a close game.
Quarterback Matt McGloin is playing the best ball of his career -- smart, restrained, under control -- and the short passing scheme with underneath throws to Allen Robinson, Brandon Moseby-Felder and tight end Kyle Carter should pay off against this kind of defense.
The Lions also have a healthy stable of running backs once again with Bill Belton and Derek Day returning, so coach Bill O'Brien has all of his offensive weapons in place.
First downs and sustained drives shouldn't be a problem. Scoring from inside the 20 could be, however, as Illinois tightens things up and relies more on its solid front seven.
SUBHD: No. 2: PSU's protection
Illinois does have a very good defensive line -- the best PSU has faced so far -- and Penn State's guys up front will have to play well to protect McGloin.
There has been some controversy in the Illinois camp this week with defensive tackle Akeem Spence questioning why the team isn't blitzing more. The Illini have relied on their front four for basically the entire pass rush, and that hasn't been working.
It probably won't work Saturday, either, because McGloin will be getting rid of the ball quickly on the short routes.
But if Illinois switches things up and does blitz, it will be up to the offensive line to provide time. Left tackle Donovan Smith will be in the spotlight in that regard as he's coming back from an ankle injury and will have to be effective to protect McGloin's weak side.
SUBHD: No. 3: Ficken, again
It might seem like picking on the young man to bring him up each week, but now is the time the place-kicker will have to start becoming more reliable.
Most Big Ten games are close, and a made or missed field goal is magnified even more. The point spread on this game is PSU by 1 point, which means it's essentially a pick 'em, and a field goal could decide things, as it did last year when Illinois had a tying kick hit off the upright as time expired in a 10-7 Lion win.
SUBHD: No. 4: Illini reaction
Illinois was embarrassed by Louisiana Tech, 52-24, and its players could go one of two ways Saturday. They could either be fired up after the humiliating loss and come out and play great, or they could be sulking and basically quit if things start to go against them early.
The latter would be great for Penn State, but there are some good, prideful kids on the Illinois side who will be eager to come out strong following the humbling loss. Penn State's kids will be fired up over the whole Illinois recruiting issue, but they need to be prepared for the Illini to be angry, as well.
SUBHD: No. 5: Player to watch
Can Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase pass the ball well enough to take advantage of Penn State's questionable secondary (and just because the defensive backs had success against Navy and Temple didn't prove anything, given how poorly those teams throw).
Scheelhaase is a terrific athlete, but he's coming off an ankle injury that might prevent him from being able to take off and run like he enjoys doing. He's also not a prototypical pocket passer, so if he's confined there, it would bode well for the Lions.
Penn State's offense should have a good day, but the outcome could be decided on how well Scheelhaase and the Illini perform against the Lions' defense.
Prediction: Penn State 24, Illinois 20
Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.
PSU (2-2) at Illinois (2-2) Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill. Kickoff: Noon TV: ESPN Line: PSU by 1