The pressure on Penn State to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2011 is now off after last week’s win against Temple.
With that settled, the Nittany Lions now have an opportunity to add another win and move up in the conference standings when they travel to Champaign, Ill., where they will face a struggling Illinois Fighting Illini team at Memorial Stadium Saturday at noon.
The Nittany Lions (6-4, 2-4) will make their final road trip of the season this week as they come off a 30-13 victory over Temple at home. The win was Penn State’s sixth of the season, qualifying the school for its first bowl game since the Ticket Bowl at the end of the 2011-12 season. Now it’s just a matter of which bowl game Penn State will land in.
Penn State has appeared in 44 bowl games in the program’s history, ranking ninth among FBS schools.
After upsetting Minnesota at the end of October, Illinois (4-6, 1-5) has lost its last two games. The Fighting Illini were blown out 55-14 at Ohio State on Nov. 1 before suffering a 30-14 loss at home to Iowa last Saturday.
Illinois owns a 4-2 record at home this season, with wins over Minnesota, Texas State, Western Kentucky, and Youngstown State.
Both teams last met on Nov. 2, 2013, when the Nittany Lions defeated the Fighting Illini 24-17 in overtime at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State will look to have another dominate day on the ground. In last week’s win against Temple, the Lions rushed for a season-high 254 yard. Akeel Lynch chipped in with 130 rushing yards and Bill Belton also ran for 92 yards. Illinois has one of the worst rushing defenses in nation, giving up 266.9 rushing yards per game which ranks No. 122 in the nation.
Lynch is looking like he’ll be the primary running back moving forward and guard Miles Dieffenbach is getting back to full strength with each passing day. Look for Penn State to test the left side of the line to see if they can move the ball, sustain long drives and give its defense longer periods of rest with an improved running game.
Against the pass, Illinois is not that much better than they are at stopping the run. The Fighting Illini rank 65th in the nation, giving up 226.6 yards in the air. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg has averaged 231.8 passing yards per game, so there’s some expectation that he can find a good rhythm against Illinois.
Defensively, Penn State is led by linebacker Mike Hull. Last week, Hull moved into tenth all-time on Penn State’s tackle list with 265 career tackles. Freshman Christian Campbell and Grant Haley each secured their first interceptions in their careers against Temple. Haley returned his interception 30 yards for touchdown, becoming the first true freshman to score a defensive touchdown since Nov. 15, 2003 when Paul Posluszny did it versus Indiana. Penn State will try to control the offensive line and put consistent pressure on quarterback Wes Lunt.
Lunt returned to lead the Illinois offense last week after sitting out the previous three games with a broken leg. In six starts, he has averaged 278.5. He has thrown 14 touchdown passes and three interceptions on the season.
The Fighting Illini average 360.2 yards per game of total offense, and 25.6 points per game. Through the air, Illinois averages 255.6 yards per game and has accumulated 20 touchdowns. The rushing attack is responsible for 104.6 yards per game and 14 touchdowns on the season. Illinois’ offense ranks 100th in the nation.
If Lunt gets the time he needs in the pocket, he’ll have several talented options to connect with. Mike Dudek and Geronimo Allison lead the receiving corps with five touchdown receptions each. Dudek averages a team-best 78.7 yards per game, totaling 51 receptions for 787 yards. Lunt and his receivers will prove to be a tough test for a Penn State secondary that intercepted Temple four times last week.
Illinois’ run game is spearheaded by running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovan Young. Ferguson leads the team with 58.1 rushing yards per game, adding 31.8 yards per game as a receiver to lead the team with 89.9 all-purpose yards per contest. His six rushing touchdowns and two receiving touchdowns account for 48 of Illinois’ points on the season.
Young has 248 yards on 65 carries this season, averaging 58.1 rushing yards per game and has five rushing touchdowns.
Linebacker Mason Monheim is the team’s leader on defense. He leads the team and ranks second in the Big Ten with 9.8 tackles per game, one spot behind Hull. Monheim has 6.5 tackles for loss and is relied upon to make big plays, recording one interception and three forced fumbles this season. Defensive back Zane Petty has 92 tackles, while Taylor Barton has 88 tackles and one interception.
*Section Photo credit to Matthew Hoist, Getty Images. Featured Photo (above) credit to Rich Barnes. USA Today Sports.