Illinois Fighting Illini at Penn State Nittany Lions (-6.5)
The up-and-down season continues for Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The Nittany Lions’ pivot followed up a 7 for 13 effort against Ohio State by completing just 13 of 19 passes against Maryland last weekend. But he made the most of those completions, to say the least, racking up 315 yards, three touchdowns, and no picks.
Hackenberg’s strange state line was enough to earn a mistake-filled 31-30 win over the Terps, and now the junior will look to lead Penn State (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) to a fourth conference win when the team welcomes the Illinois Fighting Illini (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) to Beaver Stadium this Saturday (12:00 PM Eastern).
Hackenberg became the all-time school leader in pass completions (608) and passing yards (7,453 yards) last weekend, a accomplishment he shared with his teammates.
“Yeah, that’s awesome,” Hackenberg told the Associated Press after the win. “For me, I don’t think that’s something that’s going to hit me until later on down the road. It was really cool to go out and get that done today and have my teammates around making plays.”
Penn State needed every ounce of Hackenberg’s 315 yards on a day when the ground game failed to show up (45 yards on 31 attempts). The win, their sixth of the year, officially made the Nittanies bowl eligible.
Coach James Franklin will want to shore up the defense before bowl season rolls around. The team has been lit up – yardage wise – the past two weeks, giving up 466 total yards to a very mediocre Maryland offense. The unit came up big in the clutch, though, forcing five turnovers, including an interception late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
Franklin wasn’t thrilled with the nail-biting nature of the win.
“I sure would like to get a game that’s a little easier,” Penn State coach James Franklin told the Morning Call. “…but I’m really proud of our team and how they handled adversity.”
Easy games are hard to come by in the Big Ten these days, and Illinois will likely be another tough fight. The Illini have lost their last two, but they were hard-fought games against quality competition (29-20 at no. 20 Iowa State and 24-13 vs. Wisconsin).
Led by junior QB Wes Lunt (1,702 yards, nine touchdowns, and three interceptions), Illinois largely lives and dies with the passing game.
The team has also received solid play from its defense for most of the year, surrendering just over 20 points per game (31st in the nation). The unit held Wisconsin to just ten points in the first half last week, but surrendered two second-half TDs that put the game out of reach.
Penn State has gotten the better of the head-to-head lately, winning seven of the last ten. But the Illini have been the better bet, going 7-3 ATS in those ten matchups. Concerningly for Penn State backers, the team is 0-5 ATS in its last five at home against Illinois (despite a 7-1 SU record).
Given the tight nature of the Big Ten this year, and the fact that both teams have been playing close games on a nearly weekly basis, taking Illinois to cover the 6.5-point spread looks like the better option.
Pick: Illinois +6.5.
(Photo credit: Ben Stanfield (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode]. Photo has been cropped.)