PREVIEW: Oct. 29 - Illinois (6-2, 2-2) at Penn State (7-1, 4-0)
A few weeks ago Illinois might have been favored in this game. But everything has flip-flopped in just a fortnight.
The once 6-0 Illini have dropped two straight. PSU has continued slowly gathering momentum.
After losses to Ohio State and at Purdue, Illinois' collective psyche is damaged. An early lead could bury the Illini, who are playing their third road game in four weeks and fell behind Purdue 21-0 last week. However, a tepid start (which Penn State specializes in), or a few big plays from Illinois' stockpile of big-play makers, and it could be a long day for the Lions.
Illinois has the best player in the conference at two playmaking positions: Big Ten leading receiver in catches and yards A.J. Jenkins (62 rec, 987 yards), and defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who leads the league in sacks (10), tackles for loss (15) and forced fumbles (5).
Penn State counters with a balanced, suffocating defense (five players among the top 20 in the Big Ten in sacks) that played a stellar second half vs. Northwestern last week, and emerging stud RB Silas Redd. For PSU to stay unbeaten in Big Ten play, the defense and running game must continue to show the way.
THIS COULD GET REALLY INTERESTING: If PSU can win again Saturday (if-if-if), it will embark on an amazing three-game stretch of huge games with Big Ten title hopes on the line to finish the season: On Nov. 12 Nebraska comes to Penn State for the first time as a member of the Big Ten and renews an awesome intersectional rivalry; on Nov. 19 PSU goes to Columbus to play Ohio State in the annual big border war; and on Nov. 26 PSU travels to Madison to play Wisconsin with the Leaders Division championship at stake. It's as big a three-game stretch as is imaginable - as long as the Lions can first hold serve this Saturday.
WILL MOYE PLAY?: There has been speculation PSU star WR Derek Moye could return from a broken foot after missing just two games. But if there is any question about the foot, PSU should hold him out. It's not worth the risk of re-breaking it and losing him for the rest of the season. PSU has a bye next week. Bring him back Nov. 12 vs. Nebraska if there is any doubt.
DOUBLE DIP: Due to the Big Ten having to redo all of its schedules to accommodate the inclusion of Nebraska for 2011, this is the second straight year the PSU-Illinois game will be in Happy Valley. (On Nov. 19 PSU will visits Ohio State for the second straight year).
REST FOR THE WEARY: Illinois and PSU are two of three league teams (Indiana) who have not had a bye yet. Both are off next week. Indiana is off Nov. 12.
WHO'S BETTER?: Recent supremacy in this rivalry is at stake. If Illinois wins, that's consecutive years in Beaver Stadium (injury-decimated Penn State lost 33-13 last season) and would be three of five over the Lions.
BECAUSE WE HAVE TO: Any mention of PSU football is incomplete without saying something about the quarterback situation. No one expects to see anything but Matt McGloin this Saturday. Which means we will probably see Rob Bolden, too. Just because.
THEY ARE LEADERS (DESPITE RON ZOOK): Illinois will play Penn State every season as both schools are members of the Leaders Division.
MASSEY RATINGS: This is the best ranking system out there, because it is a composite average of more than 100 computers and polls. PSU is No. 22, Illinois No. 40.
VEGAS SAYS: PSU is favored by the unusual betting line of 5.5 (some books have it at 5), with an over-under of 40.5. Which means the projected final score is 23 to 17.5.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Almost everything points to a Penn State win, even the expected late October chilly and wet weather. Which, of course, makes this an extra-scary Halloween weekend because PSU 2011 doesn't live comfortably; it's always on the edge. Illinois is fully capable of making big plays on both offense and defense. PSU must continue to play vintage grind-it-out football (the "Wild West" first half vs. Northwestern notwithstanding): The running game with Silas Redd, play-action passes with Matt McGloin, no special teams gaffes, win the turnover differential and play typical PSU defense.