Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Penn State vs Illinois: Five storylines to follow

Penn State opens up its Big Ten slate against Illinois this weekend. And though the Nittany Lions (2-2) aren't bowl -- or postseason -- eligible this year, Bill O'Brien and his crew still have something to play for. Besides pride, that is.

Penn State vs Illinois: Five storylines to follow

Penn State opens up its Big Ten slate against Illinois this weekend. And though the Nittany Lions (2-2) aren't bowl -- or postseason -- eligible, Bill O'Brien and his crew still have something to play for. Besides pride, that is.

Penn State can still win the Big Ten Leaders Division. For a team with a huge chip on its shoulders, that feat would be huge. Here's a few storylines for game one of the Nittany Lions' Big Ten journey:

Any hard feelings? When the NCAA sanctions were handed down this summer, only one Big Ten team actively and publicly recruited Penn State players. That would be first-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman and his crew of Fighting Illini assistants. Penn State running back Derek Day insisted that's "water under the bridge now." Mike Mauti, one of the Nittany Lions who actively spoke out against Illinois' tactics over the summer, was not made available to the media this week. Though the Nittany Lions won't admit it, Illinois' recruitment is still probably on their minds when they take the field this weekend. Does that mean things will get chippy?

Air it out: A big key to the Nittnay Lions' offensive success so far lies in Matt McGloin's passing game. The senior is more confident than he's ever been -- and he's playing his best football yet, coming off a career-high 318 yard game against Temple. McGloin also has a favorite -- and reliable -- target in sophomore Allen Robinson. Will the duo burn Illinois' secondary early and often? Stats are in their favor. Illinois let up 284 passing yards and four touchdowns last week in its surprising loss to Louisiana Tech.

Fast track: What's the best way to startle an opponent early? Get on the scoreboard quick. That's exactly what Penn State has done through its first four games. The Nittany Lions have out-scored the opposition, 35-0, in the first quarter this season, and 55-9 in the first half, allowing only three field goals. Beckman will have his team pumped up for the coach's first Big Ten opener. If the Nittany Lions record another fast start, though, the home crowd could be on the edge of its seats for the entire second half.

Who's running the show? For the first time since the third quarter of Penn State's season-opener, the Nittany Lions have a full, healthy group of running backs. Bill Belton, Penn State's No. 1 back, is expected to return after sitting out the past three games with an ankle injury. Curtis Dukes (thigh), Mike Zordich (bruised knee) and Derek Day (shoulder) are all expected to play, as well. The run game has been inconsistent so far, mainly because of injuries. Now that everyone's back, will Penn State have a more versatile offense? Or does their production still rely on Matt McGloin's performance?

Ride the momentum: When the Nittany Lions began the season 0-2, all talk surrounding the team seemed to focus on what a long season it would be. Well, Penn State rattled off two straight wins -- in pretty dominant fashion -- and now the Nittany Lions are an intriguing dark horse in the Big Ten race. Confidence is a factor that shouldn't be overlooked. And Penn State is feeling good after the Temple win, where it set season highs for total offense (491 yards), passing yards (318), rushing yards (173), first downs (27), 20-yard plays (7) and time of possession (36:52). Can O'Brien and Co. keep it going?

-Emily Kaplan

About this blog
Joe Juliano has been a staff writer for The Inquirer for 20 years, covering college sports, golf and the Penn Relays.

This season is Joe's fourth season on the paper's Penn State beat. He previously covered the Nittany Lions for United Press International from 1976 to 1984.

Joe Juliano
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