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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lions (4-3, 1-2) return to Beaver Stadium on Saturday to host Illinois (3-4, 0-3) in the first of three home games during the month of November (Noon, TV-ESPN).
Penn State enters the weekend with a 5-1 mark under head coach Bill O'Brien in games following a loss. The Lions and Illini will meet for the 21st time overall and ninth time in Happy Valley. Penn State owns a 16-4 on-field record against the Illini.
Last week, Allen Robinson posted his third career game with double-digit catches and fifth 100-yard receiving performance of the season at No. 4 Ohio State. Robinson, who leads the Big Ten in receptions (55), receptions per game (7.9), receiving yards (878) and receiving yards per game (125.4), made 12 catches for 173 yards and a touchdown against the Buckeyes.
Junior running back Bill Belton rushed for 98 yards in Columbus, more than any other individual against the Ohio State defense this season. Senior wide out Brandon Felder caught his third touchdown of the season last week, as well.
Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg enters the weekend as the Big Ten's leading passer. The Virginia native leads the Big Ten in completions (144) and passing yards (1,784, 254.9 ypg). Hackenberg has thrown for seven touchdowns in the last three games.
Illinois enters the weekend after a 42-3 setback to Michigan State. The Illini are led by senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who ranks fourth in the Big Ten in passing yardage with 235.6 yards per game and 12 passing touchdowns. He has completed passes to 14 different receivers in 2013.
The Penn State Dance Marathon (THON) will be featured at Saturday's game for the event's amazing fundraising efforts in the fight against pediatric cancer. The organization will present the logo for the 2014 Dance Marathon and the final total amount raised in the 2012-13 academic year. THON teams will be canning inside the gates of Beaver Stadium to raise money for THON 2014 in February.
At halftime, the Penn State Chapter of Uplifting Athletes will present a check to the Uplifting Athletes Organization.
The Illinois game will also include the "Parade of Champions," a celebration of team and individual successes from the 2012-13 season. Penn State won a school record 11 conference championships last year, including eight Big Ten titles, with the wrestling team capturing a third consecutive NCAA Championship.
Welcome to the Gameday Preview for Penn State's Leaders Division clash against Illinois.
What to Watch For - Penn State
1. Regardless of the circumstances, the Nittany Lions have demonstrated the ability to bounce back from adversity under head coach Bill O'Brien. When the Lions met as a group for the first time this week on Monday afternoon, the players walked into the team meeting focused, ready to work and determined to improve on the practice field. The team's 5-1 record under O'Brien speaks volumes about the squad's resilient attitude. The players are hungry to get back on the field in front of the home crowd to kick off a big month of five, one-game seasons.
2. The collective theme on the defensive side of the ball during the days leading up to the Illinois game has been communication. O'Brien talked about the importance of the defense being on the same page during every snap earlier this week, as did the players who spoke to the media. Senior safety Malcolm Willis said it best, noting crisp communication on the field puts everyone in the correct spot to play consistent assignment football. Keep an eye on senior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, who leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss.
3. Offensively, head coach Bill O'Brien said one key to the Illinois game is producing more "chunk" plays. Through seven games, the Nittany Lions have tallied 31 plays of 20 or more yards (22 passes, 9 rushes). In Penn State's four victories, the Lions have averaged 5.5 plays of 20 or more yards. In the three losses, Penn State has averaged just three plays of 20 or more yards. The same can be said about the Lion defense. In the four victories, Penn State has allowed just 1.8 big plays. In the three setbacks, the defense has allowed 9.3 plays of 20 or more yards. Keep an eye on Robinson and the receiving corps as the Nittany Lions work to create more "chunk" plays on Saturday.
What to Watch For - Illinois
1. Veteran quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase ranks third on the Illinois career total offense list (8,811 yards). A four-year starter, Scheelhaase has progressed in each of his four seasons under center, particularly in his ability to throw the football. The Kansas City, Mo., product is sixth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency (151.1) heading into this week's game. Additionally, Scheelhaase as among the top eight quarterbacks nationally in passes of 50 or more yards with five. A dangerous player outside of the pocket, Scheelhaase has accounted for 14 total touchdowns in 2013 (12 passing and two rushing).
2. The Big Ten's top tackler leads the Illinois defense. Senior linebacker Jonathan Brown leads the conference and is tied for 10th nationally with 10.9 tackles per game (76 tackles in 2013). Brown has posted nine or more tackles in six of Illinois' seven games this season. Brown anchors a front seven that includes sophomore linebacker Mason Monheim, who has made 61 stops this season. Keep an eye on Illinois' front seven in its quest to slow down Bill Belton and the Penn State rushing attack.
3. Big plays on special teams have can play a big role in determining the outcome of a football game. Illinois fields the Big Ten's top kickoff return ace in V'Angelo Bentley. Bentley has a 100-yard kickoff return this season, and he is averaging more than 30 yards each time he touches the ball. Bentley also returns punts for Illinois (15.8 yards per return).
The Final Word:
Saturday's game opens a big month for the Nittany Lions. Penn State will play five times in November, including three contests at Beaver Stadium. But today, the focus is on Illinois. Penn State practiced well in the days leading up to the Leaders Division clash against the Illini as it looks to get back on track following last week's setback. Eliminating mistakes on both sides of the ball are key for the Nittany Lions in their ninth meeting against Illinois in Beaver Stadium. Kick is set for noon with TV coverage on ESPN.
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