After a tough loss by a touchdown despite leading for most of the game Saturday against the University of South Florida, the Illinois Fighting Illini football team will go up against one of the best teams in the Big Ten, and one of the best teams in the country. The Penn State Nittany Lions will be coming to town on Friday night to play a game under the lights at Memorial Stadium, and it won’t be an easy rebound game for the Illini.

Penn State, coached by James Franklin, is 3-0 on the year after a tight win against perennial giant-slayer Appalachian State, followed by blowout wins against Pittsburgh and Kent State. Penn State has their offense rolling thus far this season, and quarterback Trace McSorley looks more and more comfortable in the pocket as every week passes by.

Illinois put up a solid showing in a game where many experts gave them no chance of winning, leading almost the whole game last week against USF, before an explosive USF offense came to life in the fourth quarter and won the game. If it weren’t for a few defensive miscues by Illinois, the Fighting Illini may have won that game and advanced to 3-0 for the first time in seven years.

The secondary failed in coverage on a few too many plays, however, and a late Illini drive wasn’t enough for them to tie the game, as an M.J. Rivers hail mary flew deep out of back of the endzone as time expired. The Illini will look to rebound and get their third win this week in a matchup that will likely prove their hardest matchup of the year. Penn State is highly regarded as one of the best teams in the country, and they’ll be looking to state their case Friday night.

Currently, the Illini are four touchdown underdogs. A large spread against the Illini seems appropriate, considering the team’s status as a program and struggles in certain areas (especially secondary defense) thus far this season. Not to mention, they’ll have #10 Penn State coming to their home field at Memorial Stadium, with one of the most dynamic offenses in college football. Anytime a Top-10 ranked team comes to a team who has only won four Big Ten games the past three seasons, there’s bound to be a big spread.

Let’s take a look at the team’s performances last week.

Last Week:

Illinois Fighting Illini

The game against USF didn’t end the way the Illinois program and its fans would’ve wanted. The Illini program would’ve hoped for a big win in front of a large, Chicago-based crowd. Instead, Soldier Field was relatively empty, and the Illini fell by a score of 25-19, even though they led for a majority of the game.

The Illini had a quick start led by M.J. Rivers and the young offense. Rivers came into the Illinois offense in their game against Western Illinois, after grad-transfer starter A.J. Bush went out with an injury.

Rivers didn’t have a bad game against USF by any means, as he completed 20 of 29 passes against the Bulls for a total of 168 yards in the air. Rivers led the offense downfield multiple times on scoring drives and may have been even more successful with a tad better play-calling along the way.

Rivers has looked good in his time playing for the Illini, and he became one of few true-freshmen to start a game for Illinois Football. He has, without a doubt, gained some experience already that will help him and the Illini offense going forward. Rivers will likely be the starter until A.J. Bush can return from his injury.

(At the time of writing this, Bush’s status is unclear for the game Friday.)

The Illini also got a productive game out of star sophomore running back Mike Epstein. Epstein, in previous games, had only limited carries in order to “save” him for the more difficult challenges that come naturally headed into Big Ten play. This is likely a result of the Illini losing Epstein for the latter half of the season last year due to injury.

Epstein has played well in his limited time though, and finally got the chance to show off his talent against USF. Epstein, a Florida native, starred in his freshman year as an Illini last year, before missing the final seven games with an injury. He was one of the lone bright spots to a slow-going season for the Illini offense.

This season, Illinois ranks fourth in the Big Ten and 23rd in the FBS, averaging 243 yards rushing per game. Epstein (7.17) and fellow running back Reggie Corbin (6.49) rank second and fourth, respectively, in the Big Ten in yards per carry.

With a new Offensive Coordinator in Rod Smith, however, Epstein and the Illini backs will look for more growth and production this season. Against USF, Epstein took 19 carries for 113 yards and a touchdown. He also pulled in five receptions for 56 yards.

Penn State

Penn State comes into Friday night’s contest with one of the country’s most fun offenses to watch. Led by quarterback Trace McSorley and dynamic running back Miles Sanders, the Penn State offense has been stellar so far this year.

McSorley already has accumulated 603 passing yards, and 143 rushing yards. He’s second in rushing on the team only to another dynamic offensive player in Miles Sanders. These two account for a lot of offense for Penn State, but the best way to tell you about how dynamic this offense as a whole is?

They had EIGHT players involved in a touchdown last week against Kent State.

The Illini took care of Kent State earlier in the season, but only won by a touchdown in a 31-24 outing in which the Illini struggled to get anything going on offense, or anything stopped on defense, for a majority of the game.

Penn State isn’t perfect, however, and they will be looking to correct a lot of miscues that occurred last week in their game against Kent State. Those offensive miscues included two fumbles, a handful of dropped passes and nine penalties for 109 yards — three of those which canceled out long touchdowns.

Coach James Franklin was heavily displeased after Saturday’s game, even though the Nittany Lions put up 643 yards, and the team was reported as being “hard at work” on Monday, a well-known typical off-day for the Lions, studying their mistakes in the short week of preparation.

Three Penn State wideouts have also dropped at least two passes each, and their offense, though high-scoring, hasn’t hit peak cohesiveness yet. They’ll be looking to continue to gel during a Friday night game at Memorial Stadium.

Keys Matchups

Trace McSorley vs. the Illinois Secondary

McSorley has been good as a dual threat QB thus far in the season for Penn State, and has basically accomplished everything that head coach James Franklin has asked of him. Armed with a talented WR group, who themselves haven’t exactly been perfect, McSorley could be one of the top QBs in the Big Ten this year.

If we’re being honest, Penn State has an advantage in just about every category against a young Illinois team, and this matchup seems to be no different against an Illinois secondary that has struggled in recent weeks.

The Illinois defense is ranked No. 122 nationally after allowing 325.3 passing yards per game, including 411 yards last week against USF. That being said…

It may not be easy easy as it looks on paper.

Illinois has been battered by injuries, suspensions and ejections in recent weeks, and has been forced to put a heavy reliance on freshmen and walk-ons.

The Illini will be bolstered in spirit by the fact that that should all change this week.

Starting members of the secondary Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs will be returning to the lineup against Penn State this week after being suspended for a violation of team rules prior to the start of the season. Hobbs started 10 games last year, and Williams started seven. Hobbs was named to the BTN All-Freshman team last year after a standout season, and Williams was an ESPN.com Freshman All-American.

Talk about good reinforcements. Their return will be a huge boost to the Illini team that has so heavily relied on freshmen and walk-ons in recent weeks. Seeing them on the field will be a breath of fresh air to the program’s fans.

CB Cameron Watkins was ejected in the Week 2 tilt against Western Illinois, and Nickel CB Sydney Brown was injured in that game and missed the USF game. They are also back in the lineup this week for the Illini.

They’ll need all hands on deck, as they come up against an incredibly talented McSorley-led offense on Friday night, if they want to give their offense a chance to be competitive. It will be one of the toughest matchups that these young Illini players have faced in their college careers, and the defense will need to hold strong for the team to have a chance.

Mike Epstein vs. Penn State Defensive Line

In all honesty, every player on the Penn State defensive line will be important this week.

My reasoning?

The Illini’s biggest offensive threat comes in the form of sophomore running back Mike Epstein. Epstein is pretty well-rested after a low-use opening to the season before breaking out last week against USF and is arguably the biggest threat on this Illinois offense.

It’s odd to think that, as a sophomore who missed seven games last year due to injury, Epstein could be that much of a powerhouse that he would be one of my keys to the game, but Epstein was one of the few bright spots in the Illinois offense last year, and he has been well-rested specifically for Big Ten season this year. That all starts this Friday night against Penn State.

The Penn State defensive line did well last week against a relatively-week Kent State rushing game, after getting torched by the Pittsburgh rushing game and allowing 214 yards in just one half of play.

The Nittany Lions defensive line will have to be consistent and pay close attention to running backs like Epstein and Reggie Corbin, as well as forcing their way into the backfield to get to the Illini quarterback.

Penn State will be required to read a lot of counters and stretch plays coming from the Illini offense, and it will be one of the more fun matchups to watch going into Friday’s game. Epstein is a dynamic talent for the Illini and will be one of the focal points for the Penn State defense as they look to contain a young, Illinois offense.

Rod Smith will need to pull out all the tricks and stops with Epstein and other young, Illini weapons, in order to keep up with a high-scoring Penn State offense, and in order to out-play a strong Penn State defense.

It will be a big test for the Illini offense in their Big Ten opener, to say the least.

My Take

This is without a doubt one of the toughest challenges that this young Illini team will have faced in their college careers. The team will get key players back like Bennet Williams, Nate Hobbs, and Lou Dorsey this week. Though this is great for this Illini team, it is still tough to see them pulling through with a win in this game.

I think that this will be a very tough game for the Illini. I’m thinking Penn State’s offense, led by McSorley, is too much to handle for the Illini. On the offensive side, I don’t see the young Illini offense putting up enough points to keep up. Though I don’t think that the game will be quite as bad as most experts are predicting, the odds are certainly not in Illinois’ favor.

It’s going to take excellent production in the run game, and the best performance to date from the Illini secondary. I don’t think Illinois will be taking this game, and I think they will lose 41-24. I think the Illini hold the Nittany Lions to a field goal or less on a few drives, but the lack of experienced depth comes back to haunt the Illini, and Penn State eventually pulls away.

The best thing Illini fans should be hoping for is continued development throughout this game, as the Illini will hopefully learn some lessons playing against a Top 10 team nationally. Win or loss, the competition will be a good learning experience for the team to head into Big Ten season. Under the lights, however, I think we’ll see Penn State advance to 4-0 going up against a the #4 Ohio State Buckeyes the following Saturday.

Tune back in to the site for more Illini football, as well as for coverage of the HUGE Illinois basketball recruiting weekend.

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