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Illinois Gameday Preview - Nittany Lions Open Big Ten Play

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Illinois Week Gameday Central

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State will open its 20th Big Ten football season on Saturday at Illinois (2-2) when the Nittany Lions (2-2) clash with the Illini at noon (ESPN).

The Lions enter conference play with momentum following back-to-back wins at Beaver Stadium.  Last week, Penn State tallied 491 offensive yards and limited the Temple offense to just 237 yards in a 24-13 victory over the Owls.  Senior Matt McGloin registered a career-high 318 passing yards in the victory.

Now, the Nittany Lions open Leaders Division play against the Illini inside Memorial Stadium in Champaign.  Penn State has eight more opportunities to run onto the field in 2012 and all eight games will be against Big Ten foes.  The "second" season begins on Saturday at Illinois.  Welcome to the gameday preview.


Pregame Reading:
What to Watch For - Penn State
1.  Coming off a 491-yard offensive performance, the Nittany Lions are set to face off with a talented Illinois front four.  Led by Nagurski, Bednarik, Lombardy and Hendricks Awards candidate Michael Buchanan, Illinois' defensive line will challenge the Nittany Lion offensive line.  Penn State will welcome the return of sophomore running back Bill Belton on Saturday, to go along with a deep stable of running backs - Derek Day, Zach Zwinak, Curtis Dukes and Michael Zordich.  The Lions' play in the trenches will be key in not only establishing the running game but also pass protection against the quick, athletic group of Illinois defensive linemen.

2.  On the defensive side of the ball, Penn State's front seven wants to stop the run first and foremost every Saturday.  This week won't be any different.  Defensive line coach Larry Johnson told this week that stopping the run is atop the gameplan against Illinois.  One dimension of the Illini rushing attack is quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.  The junior signal-caller is an athletic, dual-threat player with good speed.  Limiting his ability to scramble will be a key area for the defensive line and the linebacker corps of Michael Mauti, Glenn Carson, Gerald Hodges and Mike Hull.

3.  The Nittany Lions have been dominant in the first half of each game in 2012, out-scoring their opponents 55-9.  Coach O'Brien noted earlier this week that a quick start on both sides of the ball is crucial every week, but sustaining that effort for 60 minutes is essential during a road game in Big Ten play.  Penn State played its most complete game on both sides of the ball last week against Temple, and the Nittany Lions want to continue taking a step forward with a complete game for four quarters on Saturday.  That begins with a fast start.

What to Watch For - Illinois
1.  Illinois' defensive line is the top unit on the defensive side of the ball.  Led by Buchanan, seniors Glenn Foster and Justin Staples, along with junior Akeem Spence, the Illini have the personnel to make big plays on any down.  Illinois will be looking to get into the backfield to disrupt the timing of the Nittany Lion passing game on Saturday.  Keep an eye on the matchup in the trenches when the Lions have the ball.

2.  Illinois will be looking to keep the Nittany Lion defense off balance on Saturday, much like Ohio did during the season-opener.  With an elusive quarterback capable of moving the chains with his legs, Illinois' running game will play a big role in setting up plays down field in the passing attack.  Penn State wants to stop the run, but Illinois' rushing attack with Scheelhaase and running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young will likely play a big role in deciding the outcome.

3.  The Fighting Illini will be looking to bounce back from a 52-24 setback to Louisiana Tech.  With it being an 11 a.m. CT kick, Illinois will be looking to come out of the gate fast.  The Illini can ill afford an early deficit following last week's outcome.  Scheelhaase and the veteran members of the Illini squad need to set the tone early in a very big game for the home team.

Gameday Rundown
Kickoff: 11:01 a.m. CT
TV: ESPN - Dave Pasch (PBP), Brian Griese (Analyst), Jenn Brown (Sidelines)
Radio: Penn State Sports Network - Steve Jones (PBP), Jack Ham (Analyst), Loren Crispell (Sidelines)
Stadium: Memorial Stadium (60,670) - FieldTurf
Coaches: Bill O'Brien - 2-2, 1st season
Tim Beckman - 2-2 (23-18 overall), 2nd season at Illinois (4th season overall)
The Series: 20th meeting

The Final Word:
Penn State will open its Big Ten season on the road for the 12th time in 20 years.  The Lions have taken steps forward during each of the four games already played, but Coach O'Brien has stressed all week that the team still has a lot of work to do.  Although Penn State has played superb football in the first half of games this year, O'Brien is looking for a complete four quarters game at Illinois.  Offensively, the Lions will have a stable of healthy running backs to use against the Illini.  Establishing the run is always critical when the Big Ten season begins, and Saturday's contest will be no different in Champaign.  Matt McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing yards and Allen Robinson leads the conference in receiving yards, but the offense will be looking for a strong day on the ground and a consistent effort from the offensive line.  On defense, Penn State has improved significantly on third down in the last two games, limiting its opponents to just 26 percent of their third down conversion chances.  Getting off the field on third down will again play a big role in Saturday's game.  Additionally, stopping the run and tackling well in space are two key areas for the Nittany Lions.  The weather forecast is predicting a superb day for football as the Nittany Lions kickoff Big Ten play for the 2012 season.  Tune in at noon.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

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