Game Preview: Penn State vs. Illinois

Story posted December 18, 2020 in CommRadio, Sports by Zach Donaldson

After some speculation, Week 9 in the Big Ten is indeed happening and the matchups are set.

While Ohio State and Northwestern battle it out in a surprising title game for the Big Ten crown, the Penn State Nittany Lions and Illinois Fighting Illini will join the rest of the conference and face off in a game where the stakes aren’t quite as high.

Both Illinois and Penn State are heading in polar opposite directions. Illinois has dropped its last two games and just fired its head coach, Lovie Smith. Penn State is on a three-game win streak and has all of the confidence and momentum on its side.

Will the Fighting Illini rally around one another after the firing of their coach and put a halt to Penn State’s late season resurgence, or will the Nittany Lions be able to keep things rolling?

Let’s take a look at some of the key matchups and keys to the game for each team and find out.

James Franklin has his team reeling, as the offense and defense are both beginning to click, and Penn State appears to be having fun again. The Nittany Lions are suddenly sizzling hot, and they couldn’t have drawn a better opponent as they seek to increase their win streak to four in effort to salvage what once seemed like a lost season.

Contrary to popular belief, if one subtracts the turnovers and some questionable play calling, Penn State’s offense hasn’t been too bad this year. The Nittany Lions rank second in the Big Ten in total yards per game, averaging above 411 and each position has shown bright flashes.

On the other hand, the Fighting Illini rank dead last in the Big Ten in yards allowed, surrendering 451 yards along with 32 points per contest. Overall, Illinois has had one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten this season.

The Fighting Illini have gambled quite a bit however and been able to come up with some timely, crushing sacks and turnovers. But with that, they’ve also allowed a considerable amount of chunk plays.

Jahan Dotson, the Big Ten leader in receiving yards has had a knack for big plays this season. Dotson was recently named to the third-team All-Big Ten, despite leading the conference in yards (625) and being tied for third in touchdowns with six.

It’s certainly still an honor, but with the way Dotson has played this year, it’s sort of a disrespect. Expect it to light a fire under him, and against a vulnerable Illinois pass defense, Dotson could be in for a huge game.

Illinois’ run defense is just as helpless, as it ranks second to last in the Big Ten in yards allowed per contest and is coming off of a forgettable performance against Northwestern. The Wildcats galloped for 411 total rushing yards against the Fighting Illini.

If Penn State’s offense mimics its game plan from the last three weeks by first establishing the run and subsequently springing Dotson and his dynamic counterpart Parker Washington loose, the Nittany Lions could run away with this game quickly.

A balanced attack is going to be key. It starts with the offensive line physically asserting themselves up front and creating a threat with the run. Getting Devyn Ford, Keyvone Lee and/or Caziah Holmes in a groove and generating a consistent rushing attack is something that Penn State must do if they want to win.

Speaking of running the ball, that’s about all Illinois does well. The Fighting Illini offense is one dimensional, as they rank last dead last in passing yards per game, and towards the bottom in passing touchdowns and attempts as well. Not to mention, they will be without their leading receiver, Josh Imatorbhebhe, who declared for the 2021 NFL Draft earlier this week.

The Fighting Illini rushing attack however, headlined by Chase Brown, Mike Epstein and Reggie Love III, is ranked second in the conference in yards per game, averaging slightly above 202.

Especially since it appears to have finally found its footing, Penn State’s defense shouldn’t have too much difficulty handling the Fighting Illini if it can stop their rushing attack.

Not to mention, Illinois will be playing under a new interim head coach who will be replacing Lovie Smith, as he was recently let go by the team. Smith got the boot after going 17-39 over the course of five seasons, and the Fighting Illini will now turn to former offensive coordinator Rod Smith for the time being.

Penn State is steadily trending upwards and has been playing extremely well as of late, showing improvements on both sides of the ball. On the contrary, Illinois has not played well and clearly has some things that need to be resolved since the school just fired its head coach.

Penn State is focused, confident and has all of the positive momentum on its side. There’s a good chance that Illinois just wants this season to be over with and won’t even bring its best effort.

Even if Illinois decides to pull out all the stops, as the game progresses, Penn State will wear down the Fighting Illini until they have nothing left in the tank.

Penn State takes its momentum into bowl season and Illinois heads on the plane back to Champaign with a new head coach next season to look forward to.

Prediction: Penn State 40, Illinois 17


Zach Donaldson is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email