STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- I drove up to Happy Valley a little early to beat the expected mass of travelers. It's actually not raining right now, but around kickoff tomorrow night it looks like it's going to be a toss up as far as there being inclement weather. Whether it rains or not I don't think it will have much of an impact on the game, at least in terms of favoring one team over the other.
Anyway, nothing should affect Penn State. Right? The Nittany Lions are better than Southern Cal. Right? Umm, I'm not so sure about that, but one thing is for sure, they clobbered a common opponent while the Trojans were punched in mouth by Oregon State Thursday night. I don't know if the USC-OSG game gives the Lions any more added confidence or if it scares the Illini, but it can't be viewed as nothing less than a positive if you're a Penn State person.
As for this game, I have the same feeling I had before the Oregon State game. I thought the Lions could win by three touchdowns, but wussed out and scaled back my pick, picking Penn State, 38-31. They ended up with a 45-14 victory. The difference between this opponent and that one, of course, is that Illinois is a Big Ten foe and that's enough to even the balances a tad.
Illinois, though, hasn't looked like a giant killer. The Illini put up 42 against No. 6 Missouri in the opener, but also allowed 52 against the Tigers. They skipped past Eastern Illinois, but held on for dear life against Louisiana-Lafayette. The had a bye last week, but I'm not sure it will play much of a factor. I always say the bye cancels itself out, especially this early in the season. It did allow Illinois to get somewhat healthier. Defensive tackle Josh Brent is back after a two-game absence, which allows Will Davis to move back to his natural position at end. Illinois will need all the bodies it can get against the Lions' seasoned offensive line. The rest of the Illini defense is suspect, save for cornerback Vontae Davis. But he can only cover one of Penn State's three senior wide receivers.
On offense, there's quarterback Juice Williams, who really wasn't much of a factor in Illinois' 27-20 win last season. The Illini have come to rely on him even more this season with the graduation of running back Rashard Mendenhall. Daniel Dufrene, though, has proved to be a nice replacement and has rushed for 300 yards on 45 carries. This is will be the first time Penn State's defense faces playmakers like Williams, Dufrene and wide receiver Arrelious Benn. It should be interesting to see how they react. In case you haven't heard, defensive linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma are back. They won't start, but should see some time. They could be rusty, but could also be fairly rested after missing three games. Penn State opened in the nickel last week to contain the mobile Adam DiMichele and could employ the same defense against Williams and Illinois. That leaves linebacker Tyrell Sales on the sidelines, but it puts safety Drew Astorino on the field as the nickel. The kid just has a nose for the ball.
There are three matchups worth watching: Penn State linebacker Navorro Bowman keeping tabs on Williams, Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson blitzing Lions quarterback Daryll Clark and Penn State cornerbacks Tony Davis and Lydell Sargeant covering Benn. I like the Lions in the first two matchups. I think Benn will give the Penn State secondary fits. But all that being said, the Lions will be playing before a packed, frothing-at-the-mouth Beaver Stadium with a running attack able to shepherd any team through adversity. And that should be more than enough.
Prediction: Penn State 38, Illinois 21.