Illini looking to end winless record in Beaver Stadium

Illinois junior defensive tackle Corey Liuget has vivid memories of the last time the Illini visited Penn State two years ago; ones he has relayed to his younger teammates.

“I told the (younger) guys to get ready for the loudest place they’ll play at all year,” Liuget said. “Those fans are crazy.”

The Illini (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) will travel to Penn State (3-2, 0-1) again Saturday, looking for their first ever win at Beaver Stadium. Illinois has lost all six games it has played there, including a 38-24 loss in 2009.

“To me it is exciting, the fact we are going somewhere we have never won before,” Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. “All that does is make the percentages that much better that you’re going to win.”

Saturday’s matchup will showcase two first-year signal callers in Illinois redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase and Penn State true freshman Robert Bolden.

While both are gifted runners, Bolden has had more success through the air than his Illini counterpart. Bolden has completed 88 of 150 passes this season for 1,035 yards, while Scheelhaase has 489 passing yards this season on 43 of 79 passing.

“I think they’re doing some things in terms of him on the corner and getting him out of pocket,” Zook said. “I don’t know that his first thing is to run, but he can run. He’s an athletic guy and I think he’s throwing the ball pretty well.”

Bolden, who joined the team in the summer, is at the helm of a Penn State offense that ranks last in the Big Ten in points per game, and second to last in yards per contest. Contributing to the Nittany Lions’ offensive struggles has been an uncharacteristically anemic running game led by senior running back Evan Royster.

Royster enters Saturday’s game as Penn State’s fourth all-time leading rusher with 3,271 career rushing yards, and needs 127 more yards to break Curt Warner’s all-time record.

“No question he’s the best running back we’ve seen up to this point,” Zook said.

But the senior running back has averaged just 70.6 yards per game this season, and Penn State is second to last in the conference in rushing.

Last season, the Penn State running game led the way to a 35-17 win for the Nittany Lions. Penn State totaled 338 yards on the ground, with Royster gaining 105 yards and junior running back Stephfon Green contributing 120 yards.

“They’ve also got a stable full of them,” Zook said of the Penn State running backs. “Even though (Royster)’s the best running back and you better know when he’s in there, they play a lot of running backs as well. They keep them fresh, a lot like we’re trying to do.”

Defensively, Penn State has allowed an average of 15 points and 290.4 yards per contest this season, ranking behind only Ohio State and Iowa in the Big Ten in both categories.

“They’re not down on defense,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “You watch them on tape, and they’re pretty good. They’ve been playing defense as well as they have been playing these last few years.”

Petrino said the Nittany Lions play a 4-3 defense in mostly Cover-2 and Cover-3, with an emphasis on getting to the quarterback.

“(They run) a little bit more three-deep (coverage),” Zook said. “I think they’ll blitz a little bit more on first downs, particularly in what we call 21 personnel.”

Penn State’s losses have come on the road to No. 1 Alabama and No. 17 Iowa. The Nittany Lions were outscored 48-6 in the two games.

Both Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said the two games have been studied heavily to see what worked well for Alabama and Iowa.

“That’s definitely something you look at because both Alabama and Iowa like to run the ball,” Petrino said. “But mainly, they both played really good defense.”

Koenning pointed to the play of Alabama and Iowa’s defensive lines as the key to limiting the Penn State offense.

“Iowa and Alabama’s lines were dominant, so they were able to play pass coverages because they were able to stop the run,” Koenning said. “They were able to put six or seven guys in the box. Whether or not we’ll be able to do that, we’ll have to wait and see.”