Penn State Nittany Lions (-6.5, 44 o/u) at Illinois Fighting Illini
Last weekend, Penn State (6-4, 2-4 Big Ten) picked up its sixth win of the year in convincing fashion, routing the Temple Owls 30-13. Since it was a non-conference game, the Nittany Lions faithful are likely unsurprised by the result. Penn State is a perfect 4-0 outside the Big Ten on the year. Their record inside the conference (2-4) is not so shiny. This weekend, the Nittanies get back to conference play as they travel to Champaign to face the Illinois Fighting Illini (4-6, 1-5 Big Ten) at Memorial Stadium (12:00 p.m. Eastern).
The Illini have had an even rougher time inside the Big Ten, posting just one conference win on the year (a shocking 28-24 win over Minnesota back in late October). The remainder of their conference games have been double-digit losses, including last week’s home loss to Iowa (30-14).
Penn State is led by sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Last year, Hackenberg had an encouraging freshman season, throwing for 2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns, and ten interceptions. This year, though, Hackenberg is mired in the dreaded sophomore slump. His completion percentage, touchdowns, and yards-per-attempt are all down, while his interceptions are way up. Through ten games, the second-year pivot has just seven touchdowns and 14 picks. Hackenberg has failed to reach the 200 yard mark in three straight, despite throwing 42 passes against Maryland three weeks ago, and 29 against Indiana the week after that. (The Nittany Lions did manage a 13-6 win over the Hoosiers for their second conference win, but pushed as a seven-point favorite.)
This weekend, Hackenberg will have a good opportunity to bump his slump. The Illini surrender 226 passing yards per game on average and have struggled to keep points off the board all year. Unfortunately for Hackenberg, the real weakness of the Illinois defense is on the ground; according to ESPN, the Illini are dead-last in the FBS in rush yards allowed (266.9 per game). (Coincidentally, Penn State is first in the nation at just 82.9.)
Whether Penn State will be able to capitalize on the porous Illini front seven is very much in doubt, though. The Nittany Lions are fifth-last in the country in rushing offense, averaging 103.3 yards per game, and they are last in yards per attempt (2.9). But the run game is coming off of an impressive performance against the Owls (who, ostensibly, have a better run defense than Illinois) in which it racked up 254 yards. In light of the recent success, Penn State head coach James Franklin will likely lean on the ground game again, with running backs Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton splitting the carries.
Based largely on the strength of the defense, Penn State comes in as a 6.5-point favorite and (again based on the strength of the Penn State defense) the over/under is at a low 44. Last year, Penn State beat Illinois at home (24-17) for their third straight head-to-head win.
(Photo credit: Ben Stanfield (flickr) “Penn State vs. Akron” [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode].)