Penn State (7-1, 4-0 Big Ten) hosts Illinois (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) this weekend in a critical game for the Nittany Lions. A win would send Penn State in to their bye week with a 5-0 record with three games to play in the Big Ten, and ensure at least a one game lead in the Leaders Division race. If Ohio State can knock off Wisconsin in Columbus this weekend and Penn State wins, that would put the Nittany Lions in solid position to make a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game, but in order to stay ahead of the pack they need to pick up a revenge win against Illinois, who roughed them up at homecoming in a 33-13 game last season.
Here are a few keys to the game this weekend for Penn State.
1. Manage time of possession
Last year Illinois controlled the clock for 38 minutes, 12 seconds. It was the fourth time in 2010 that Penn State was on the short end of the time of possession battle, although sometimes that stat can be misleading but this was such a difference that it made it near impossible to make a run at the Illini. Penn State had just seven first downs in that game, compared to 23 by Illinois.
2. Slow down the running game
Illinois plowed through Penn State’s defense last season for 282 yards of rushing offense, with Mikel Leshoure becoming the second player of many to run for at least 100 yards against the Nittany Lions last season. Illinois is averaging199.3 rushing yards per game (ranked 23rd in the nation) but is ranked just 72nd in passing so the focus will be to force Nathan Scheelhaase to beat Penn State’s secondary. If last week against Northwestern was any indication it would suggest that Illinois will find some holes in the secondary but if the defensive line can bring some consistent pressure and force Scheelhaase to make some bad throws (as they did against Iowa) then Penn State should be in OK shape to give the offense a chance to win this weekend.
3. It’s a brand new season, so forget last year
We have heard plenty about what happened last season against the Illini but the key thing to keep in mind here is that this is a brand new season and these two teams are at different positions than they were a season ago. Last year Penn State dropped to 3-3 with the loss to Illinois in a season in which they struggled against the top-tier competition on their schedule and were pushed around as though they were playing on one leg in the trenches on both sides of the football.
Last year’s game will serve as a little bit of extra motivation for this weekend’s rematch in Beaver Stadium, even if some coaching staff members and players will say they are not thinking about it.
The situation rarely comes up but Joe Paterno has never lost consecutive games against the same opponent at home in back-to-back years as a head coach. The last time Penn State lost at home to the same opponent two years in a row was in 1958 and 1959, when Syracuse won two straight games.
Kickoff for this weekend’s game is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. and the game will be televised on ABC or ESPN2, depending on your local area.
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