Penn State vs. Illinois: Lions open conference play on road

Justin K. Aller - Getty Images

The Nittany Lions will try to take a good first step toward a Big Ten Leaders Division title.

Penn State will take on Illinois at noon Saturday in its first Big Ten opener of the Bill O'Brien era. Here are some keys for the Nittany Lions on both sides of the ball.

When Penn State has the ball ...

-Penn State will enter this game with the No. 96-ranked rushing attack nationally, so the Lions have been uninspiring running the ball to say the least. Illinois has the most athletic defensive front Penn State has seen all season, which could compound those struggles and force the Lions to go to the air. That means the offensive line needs to be ready to handle the pass rush. If it can't, Matt McGloin could be forced into some costly mistakes that could haunt the Lions. But if it can, the Illini's 52-24 loss last week shows they could be vulnerable if McGloin has time to find his targets.

-McGloin completed passes to nine receivers last week, which helped draw coverage off of star receiver Allen Robinson. Similar diversity should be a priority this week, as Big Ten defenses have seen enough of the sophomore to know what he's capable of.

-Running back Bill Belton is expected to return to the lineup this week after missing the last three games with an ankle injury. His quickness should give the Lions a nice option out of the backfield, one they haven't really had most of the year as a result of his injury. Look for a couple of screens throughout the afternoon.

When Illinois has the ball ...

-Illini quarterbacks Reilly O'Toole and Nathan Scheelhaase bring distinctly different styles to the table. Scheelhaase fits better in a spread option attack while O'Toole is more of a drop back passer. Penn State has to be ready for both, or one of the QBs will likely find ways to burn them.

-After facing two very run-heavy offenses from Navy and Temple the past two weeks, Penn State's secondary figures to get more of a workout in Champaign. It's no secret that this unit is the thinnest on the team, so it'll be interesting to see how it responds to more pressure. If the defensive backs do well, it's a very good sign for a defense that has shown it's pretty solid up front.

-Sean Stanley is expected to return to his defensive ends spot this week, which means Penn State should have a little more depth to work with this week. If he can get right back into the flow of things, it will take pressure off defensive tackle Jordan Hill, who to this point has faced a lot of double teams that have mitigated his effectiveness.

Overall

Penn State has looked solid on both sides of the ball for the last couple of weeks. This is when we find out if that success is for real. Illinois is a cut above the past couple of opponents, but it's still a beatable team. If Penn State loses, it could be a signal of a long Big Ten schedule ahead. If Penn State emerges victorious, then hope remains that this group can fight to stay in the Leaders race.

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