Penn State-Illinois Positional Comparison

h3. Quarterback

Nathan Scheelhaase set career highs in completions (22) and attempts (35) last week at Purdue — though it came in a game in which the Illini were chasing early. Despite the career marks, he’d be the first to tell you he didn’t make the throws he would have liked to make and he appears to have entered a mini-slump. Teams will continue to key in on the option read, meaning he will be challenged to beat single coverage over the top. Matt McGloin has cemented himself as the PSU QB after a drawn out battle with the highly touted Rob Bolden. McGloin, a former walk-on, is far from dazzling, but has kept things tidy with a 7:2 touchdown to interception ratio this year.

(Edge: Illinois)

h3. Running Backs

UI’s rejuvenated back Jason Ford has reached the 5.0 yards per carry mark in consecutive games after failing to do so in the previous six. He will reportedly see more carries Saturday. PSU’s Silas Redd, however, is as hot as any back in the nation. The sophomore phenom has 556 yards in the past four games, which is good for second in the nation in that span.

(Edge: Penn State)

h3. Receiver

PSU would get the nod if Derek Moye was healthy, yet the 6-foot-5 veteran’s broken left foot will keep him out at least one more game. The Nittany Lions will roll out Justin Brown (343 yards, 1 TD) and Devin Smith, a 5-foot-7 bullet who gashed Northwestern for 110 yards and a touchdown last week. A.J. Jenkins is good enough to give UI a leg up here. Spencer Harris tied his career high with six catches last week at Purdue.

(Edge: Illinois)

Offensive Line

The UI running game continues to spin its tires while PSU’s front five has shined considerably this year despite having no household names. The unit has allowed just seven sacks in eight games, a rate that ranks first in the Big Ten and 14th in the nation. UI needs ST Corey Lewis (knee) back to reassert itself as a plus unit. Last week they made an average Purdue front look All-Pro.

(Edge: Penn State)

h3. Defensive Line

This PSU group is ferocious and balanced, showing not only an ability to rush the passer but run-stuffing capabilities to boot. DT Devon Still (12 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks) is a house at 6-foot-5, 310 pounds and so is DT Jordan Hill (7 TFL, 3.5 sacks). That interior duo is poised to continue the UI offensive line’s recent troubles with big, physical presences on the inside.

The UI front is as good a pass-rushing unit as any but they have struggled to clamp down on the run in each of the past two weeks against offenses with limited passing abilities. This is problematic, as PSU’s offensive line excels in pass protection — meaning UI will need to get creative to find production out of this group. The key here could be DT Akeem Spence, who is due for a true breakout performance.

(Edge: Illinois)

h3. Linebackers

If this were a recruiting comparison it wouldn’t even be close, as PSU is predictably stocked two deep with blue-chip athletes. The Nittany Lions have more talent than they know what to do with; getting more than one gamebreaker out of the platoon has been another story. OLB Gerald Hodges has been a force this season with 35 solo tackles, 8 tackles for a loss, and 3.5 sacks. The sturdy duo of fifth-year OLB Nate Stupar (4.5 TFL, two interceptions) and MLB Glenn Carson (42 tackles) round out the group.

UI has been buoyed by the emergence of “Downtown” Jonathan Brown, who has had double-digit tackles in three consecutive games to go with 4.5 tackles for a loss in that span. MLB Ian Thomas bounced back from a pair of forgettable games to post nine tackles and a sack against Purdue last week. The two All-Big Ten locks give UI enough to match PSU’s sheer talent and depth.

(Edge: Tie)

h3. Defensive Backs

PSU has a dynamic pair of safeties in free safety Nick Sukay (three interceptions, four passes broken up) and “hero” (what PSU calls its strong safety) Drew Astorino (42 tackles, six passes broken up). The pair of veterans has 62 combined starts. CBs Chaz Powell and D’Anton Lynn (52 starts combined) make this perhaps the most experienced unit in the country.

UI continues to limit teams through the air thanks to a pair of shutdown corners in Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne. Hawthorne was electric against Western Michigan and Arizona State’s pass-happy offenses but the junior is due for a big game. He won’t get many opportunities to make a play on balls in the air, however, as Penn State will stick to the run game.

(Edge: Tie)

h3. Special teams

Last week’s muffed punt didn’t help to quiet the critics of the Illini’s reeling special teams. The return game continues to get little to no production (even negative, with a -5 mark on three punt returns last week).

(Edge: Penn State)

h3. Coaching

That’s back-to-back weeks now in which the Illini offensive gameplan seemed ill-fitted. UI has playmaking ability on its side but it has been bogged down by what appeared to be an overly low-tempo, low-urgency approach against Ohio State and Purdue. Only after the heat was turned up and the conservative shroud tossed did the offense generate any sort of spark. Now that teams have “figured out” how to slow the 6-0 offense’s scheme, the coaching staff has a sort of second season on its hands. PSU’s staff has held this thing together despite a QB controversy, a lack of a passing game, a young roster, the absence of their elite receiver and a humbling home loss to Alabama.

(Edge: Penn State)

h3. X-Factor

Despite Derek Moye’s absence, this is a Penn State team that is much more poised than last year’s. My calculations show a -3 percent chance of the Nittany Lions yielding 282 yards on the ground and an all-but-certain chance of the group playing with a chip on its shoulder after that 33-13 loss in front of their home crowd. PSU thrives in punishing slugfests and is 5-0 this year in games decided by 10 points or less, while UI is 3-2 after a pair of comeback attempts fell short against Ohio State and Purdue. A cloud of negativity has suddenly appeared over the Illini, and this would go a long way to dissipate it, but winning in Happy Valley in consecutive years is a tall order indeed.

(Edge: Penn State)