Penn State suffered its worst loss in 114 years last Saturday when Ohio State blew the doors off the Nittany Lions in a 63-14 rout.
I also had to eat a slice of humble pie this week as well as my 38-35 prediction (Ohio State over PSU) was way off base. It just goes to show you once again, that just when you think you know a little about college football the gridiron gods knock you down a few pegs.
This week PSU will be back at home as Illinois comes to town (Noon ET, ESPN).
After the beating the Nittany Lions took last week, it's hard to believe that Bill O'Brien and his squad aren't chomping at the bit to redeem themselves this afternoon. O'Brien has shown that he's not a quitter by any means and over the last two seasons the Penn State football program has undoubtedly took on the persona of its head coach. So, expect a very hyped up football team at noon today.
"We had a team meeting yesterday, and I knew when I opened those doors, every one of them would sitting there ready to go," said O'Brien. "That's the type of kids we have. Like I said before, Saturday night was not a great night, but it's one game, and it's important to learn from it, learn from the experience."
For Penn State (4-3), it all starts with its defense this week. After giving up 686 yards of total offense and 63 points to the Buckeyes last week it's vital for the PSU "D" to jump on the Illini (3-4) early.
The number one concern later today will be Illinois quarterback Nathan Sheelhaase. I feel like Sheelhaase has been at Illinois forever, he's just one of those guys. Sheelhaase has been productive once again this season, throwing for 1,649 yards 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also has two rushing touchdowns. The Illini senior hasn't rushed for many yards this season (71), but he has 1,886 rushing yards in his career. Meaning, Penn State will be facing its third dual threat quarterback in their last three games (Devin Gardner, Braxton Miller).
"He's (Scheelhasse) a guy that's improved his throwing ability. He's got better command of the offense," said O'Brien. "It's Billy Cubit now running the offense, and he's doing a great job with Coach Cubit's offense. And he's in his second year in Coach (Tim) Beckman's program and things like that. So, he's a much improved player, and he's a guy that's a big challenge for us on Saturday."
Running back Josh Ferguson has been Scheelhaase's favorite target this season, catching 66 balls for 361 yards and two touchdowns. Ferguson has also rushed for 361 yards (5.5 per carry), scoring two touchdowns.
Overall, the Illinois offense is averaging 400 yards of total offense.
The real question is will Penn State do a better job of tackling, creating pressure, and jamming receivers off the line of scrimmage? The Nittany Lions defensive backs played way too far off the Ohio State receivers last week and that's something that after watching the game film O'Brien took notice too.
"We were a little soft in coverage last week," said O'Brien. "We need to be more aggressive in coverage, like don't be afraid to go make a mistake. Go take your shot. That's what I thought was big on that."
O'Brien's plan defensively along with defensive coordinator John Butler is to simplify things on that side of the ball. It's evident that the NIttany Lions have some talented athletes on defense, guys that are certainly capable of making plays. It just seems that a lot of times they're not in the right position.
Penn State hasn't been able to create a lot of pressure on the quarterback this season either. Without creating pressure on the QB, that in turn puts a lot of pressure on the defensive backs and obviously the PSU secondary has struggled when put in those type of situations.
"I think what we have to do is make sure we coach these guys and that we simplify these things so that these guys can go out and play," said O'Brien "We have a lot of good players on both sides of the ball, but I think we just need to let them go play."
Let's now move on to the offense where Penn State also struggled last week, scoring just 14 points.
The Nittany Lions will have their chance to get back on track as Illinois is giving up over 450 yards of total offense. After a shoulder injury knocked Christian Hackenberg out of the game last week (I think the score had a lot to do with that) O'Brien says he practiced in full this week and will be ready to go for today.
Standout Allen Robinson had himself another stellar game on Saturday catching 12 balls for 173 yards and two touchdowns and will probably once again have anoher solid outing.
Penn State will also have an opportunity to have success in the running game. Illinois gives up an average of 5.1 yards per carry and 238.4 rushing yards per contest. Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch looked decent last week at times and Zach Zwinak still leads the team in rushing touchdowns with eight. Expect all three to play and make an impact.
Lastly, this game comes down to resiliency. O'Brien has mentioned time and time again on how resilient his team has been. If Penn State comes out and plays solid, disciplined, hard-hitting football and takes care of business against a team in all honesty that they should beat, then they will back up their coach's statements.
The Penn State program cannot afford a let down this week. In order to keep things headed in the right direction a win against the Illini is a must.
I think the Nittany Lions are a resilient bunch as well. The spread on this game is 10.5.
My pick is Penn State 37, Illinois 21.