Date: September 21st, 2018
Game Time: 9:00 PM ET
Venue: Memorial Field, Champaign , IL.
Television Network: FS1
Illinois (2-1) vs. #10 Penn State (3-0)
It’s finally here! Both of these teams will get their B1G season started in a rare, but always enjoyable, “Friday Night Lights” game in Champaign, Illinois. The Illinois Fighting Illini come into this game having lost a heartbreaker against the USF Bulls, 25-19. The Illini led 19-7 heading into the fourth quarter but couldn’t find a way to move the ball enough with their true freshman QB MJ Rivers at the helm of the offense.
As for the Penn State Nittany Lions, they went back to taking care of business against the Kent State Golden Flashes by a final score of 63-10. For die hard Penn State fans, this result came as relief, as many fans were wondering before the game which Penn State team would show up. They got their answer, and now this team will be looking to build on back to back impressive performances.
Why Penn State Can Win
Well, it’is safe to say that Penn State senior QB Trace McSorely officially began his Heisman campaign against Kent State last Saturday. McSorely totaled a 50% completion rate, 229 passing yards (2:1 TD to INT), and 9 carries for 54 yards and 3 TD. Now, this wasn’t McSorley’s best game. However, he showed just how effective he can be even when given minimal opportunity.
Now, this offense isn’t just about Trace McSorely. There are plenty of playmakers who make his job easier. One is junior RB Miles Sanders who had 86 yards on 14 carries and 3 rec for 30 yards against Kent State. He isn’t Saquon Barkley, but he might be in line to produce similar numbers this season. Look for McSorely to lean on his RB in order to get comfortable early against this Illini pass rush.
There is also the defensive side of the ball for Penn State. The defense was quite disappointing in their opening game of the season. However, over the last two games (@Pitt, Kent State), this unit has only given up an average of 8 points per game. It is led by senior DE Shareef Miller, who is known for causing havoc against opposing offensive lines. Also, don’t forget about the freshman LB standout Micah Parsons. He is another part of this formidable pass rush, and will likely see big time minutes against the Illini. Even at his early age, it is clear that he is a future star in the NFL.
Why Illinois Can Win
The Illini played against an awful rush defense last week. This allowed for the Illini RBs to impose their will against the USF defense. Sophomore RB Mike Epstein continued his fast start to the season with a great showing totaling 119 rushing yards and 1 TD on 19 carries. He also led the Illini in receiving with 5 rec for 56 yards. “Change of pace” junior RB Reggie Corbin also had himself a nice day totaling 98 rushing yards on 12 carries. Between the two of them, the Illini looked dangerous running the ball, which has not been the case over the last couple seasons.
Now, it is time to address the QB position. True freshman MJ Rivers got his first start against USF last Saturday in place of the injured (strained hamstring) 5th year senior QB AJ Bush. He played okay totaling 168 passing yards on 20-29 completions. However, he is not what the Illini need in order to win this game. They need their dual-threat QB AJ Bush back. If you recall, Bush was the first B1G Ten player since JT Barrett in 2014, to throw for at least 180 yards and rush for at least 140 yards in a game. I think it is fair to say that if the Illini want to win this game, AJ Bush needs to play.
Finally, the Illini defense needs to come to play. They did just that for the first three quarters of the game against USF. They led 19-7 heading into the fourth quarter. The problem is, there are four quarters. To help avoid a let down for a second straight week, the Illini will be adding two important players to their secondary. Sophomore DBs Nate Hobbs and Bennett Williams will be making their first starts of the season due to suspension.
What will happen
The narrative across the country for this game is probably very similar. “The Penn State Nittany Lions will embarrass the Illinois Fighting Illini to open B1G Ten play.” The sub-headline would be similar as well. “Trace McSorely will continue his strong play and light up the Illini secondary. His talented RB Miles Sanders will have a big game in the Friday Night Lights showcase against the Illini.”
Well, I don’t quite buy this. Currently, Penn State are 28-point favorites over Illinois. That figure could be steamed off the key number before kick-off in Champaign Friday night. What most people don’t know is that it is a huge Friday for Illini Men’s Basketball and Football. Men’s Basketball is hosting three standout players. 4-star guard Terrence Shannon Jr, 5-star forward EJ Liddell, and 5-star center Oscar Tshiebwe will be in the house. So there will be plenty of Illini faithful on campus. That’s combined with it’s the first home B1G Ten football game of the season. The Fighting Illini could be playing in-front of a sold out crowd at Memorial Stadium.
This atmosphere will make it much tougher for an already penalty prone Penn State team to run their offense as planned. Add the fact that Illinois will be looking to bounce back from a loss, of which many in the Illini program felt like they let get away. And Illinois could be fully healthy and suspension free. Momentum could truly be on the home team’s side. Maybe I’m drinking too much of the “Orange and Blue Kool Aide”; I am not only picking Illinois to cover the spread, but I am picking them to get their B1G Ten football season off to a flying start with an upset W over the #10 Penn State Nittany Lions.
Illinois 27 PSU 24
Line: PSU -28