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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Welcome to GoPSUsports.com's live, interactive
coverage of the 2014 football season. Tune in for live blog coverage from all
12 games on the schedule. The Nittany Lions meet Illinois in the penultimate game of the season.
Follow GoPSUsports.com's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony
Game Blog: Penn State at Illinois
Game Notes | Gameday Central | Illinois Scouting Report | Coach Franklin Wednesday
Press Conference Roundup | Coach Huff Q&A | Player Q&A Video
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State (6-4, 2-4) will play its final road game of the 2014 season on Saturday when it travels to Illinois (4-6, 1-5) for a noon kick (ESPN2) inside Memorial Stadium.
The Nittany Lions earned their sixth win of the season last weekend with a 30-13 victory over intrastate foe Temple. The running back duo of Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton powered the Penn State offense behind a strong outing from the offensive line. Lynch and Belton combined for 222 rushing yards and a pair of scores in the victory. Lynch tallied a career-high 132 yards in the winning effort.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions forced five turnovers and limited the Owls to just 248 yards. Freshmen Christian Campbell and Grant Haley each snagged their first career interceptions in the contest. Haley returned his interception 30 yards for a touchdown, marking the first time a true freshman has scored a touchdown since Nov. 15, 2003 (Paul Posluszny).
Penn State is ranked in the top five in three of the four major defensive statistical categories. The Nittany Lions are No. 1 in the nation against the run (83.1 ypg.), No. 3 in the nation in total defense (265.6 ypg) and No. 4 in the nation in scoring defense (16.2 ppg).
Additionally, Penn State leads the nation in team pass efficiency defense (96.89), is sixth in third down conversion percentage defense (29.2 percent), is second in the nation in first downs defense (140 total), is 10th in passes intercepted (15) and is No. 16 in passing yards allowed (182.5 ypg).
The Nittany Lions have held their opponents to an average of 15.4 points and 139.9 yards below their season average this year. In the last three games, Penn State foes are 7-of-47 on third down (14.9 percent).
The Fighting Illini will look to snap a two-game losing streak on Saturday after back-to-back losses to No. 16 Ohio State (55-14) and Iowa (30-14). The Illini defeated Minnesota on Oct. 25 (28-24) for their first Big Ten victory of the season. Illinois is averaging 25.6 points per game on offense and is ranked No. 2 in the Big Ten in passing (255.6 ypg).
Welcome to the Gameday Preview for the week 11 matchup against Illinois.
What to Watch For - Penn State
1. Senior safety Adrian Amos said that the Nittany Lions set a goal of forcing at least two turnovers per game. Through 10 games, the Lions have forced their opponents into at least two miscues on five different occasions. That includes each of the last four games. Penn State has forced 11 turnovers in the last four contests. Head coach James Franklin often talks about the importance of playing complementary football. The turnover picture speaks to that in clear details. Since the Ohio State game, Penn State has scored 41 points off of turnovers, including two defensive touchdowns. Simply put, the defense's ability to create turnovers has put the Nittany Lion offense in a good position to capitalize on short fields and score more points.
2. Thanks to a season-high 254 rushing yards against Temple, the Nittany Lions have gained 416 yards on the ground during the past two games. Junior left tackle Donovan Smith returned from injury against the Owls and senior captain Miles Dieffenbach played extensive snaps for the first time this season last week, as well. The addition of two veteran players up front is a significant boost to the offensive line and its ability to create running lanes for Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch.
3. Penn State is the nation's second-youngest team with 76 underclassmen (49 freshmen/27 sophomores). Only Pittsburgh entered training camp with more underclassmen on its roster (81). In all, 11 players on offense, two players on defense and two players on special teams (15 total) have made their first career starts this season. Nine true freshmen have played for the Nittany Lions in 2014, including five on defense, three on offense and one punter. All nine freshmen - Marcus Allen, Troy Apke, Saeed Blacknall, Christian Campbell, Jason Cabinda, Mike Gesicki, Chris Godwin, Grant Haley and Daniel Pasquariello - have been instrumental in helping the Lions secure six victories.
What to Watch For - Illinois
1. Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt returned to the field last week after missing three games due to injury. Prior to getting hurt, Lunt was among the top signal-callers in the Big Ten. Lunt has completed 65 percent of his passes and thrown for 1,671 yards and 14 touchdowns with just three interceptions this season. Senior Reilly O'Toole stepped in for Lunt when he was injured, and he will likely see action on Saturday. O'Toole has thrown for 745 yards and five touchdowns with his arm. Additionally, he has playmaking ability with his feet. Freshman receiver Mike Dudek has been very productive for the Illini with 51 catches for 787 yards.
2. Junior linebacker Mason Monheim is the leader of the Illinois defense. A Butkus Award Watch List member, Monheim is ranked 16th among all active FBS players and first in the Big Ten with 8.26 tackles per game (Minimum of 24 career games played). Monheim is second in the Big Ten behind Mike Hull with 9.8 tackles per contest this season. He equaled his career-high with 15 tackles against Iowa last week.
3. Illinois is ranked 10th in the nation in net punting thanks to a 44.9-yard average from Justin DuVernois. The Illini have averaged 40.85 net yards on 60 punts this season. DuVernois has kicked 17 punts of 50 or more yards this season and has forced 15 fair catches.
The Final Word:
Saturday's game marks the final road game of the 2014 season. The Nittany Lions are 3-1 in games away from Beaver Stadium this season, which includes a 2-1 mark in Big Ten games. Penn State topped UCF to open the season in Ireland. In Big Ten play, the Lions have victories at Rutgers and Indiana. Since 2000, the Nittany Lions have tallied four on-field wins away from home just three times. The list includes the 2008, 2009 and 2011 seasons. Saturday's contest in Memorial Stadium will mark Penn State's 12th visit to Champaign. The Nittany Lions own an 8-3 on-field mark in games held at Illinois. Kickoff is set for 12:01 p.m. on Saturday with Bob Wischusen, Matt Millen and Quint Kessenich calling the ESPN2 broadcast.
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -
Penn State special teams coordinator and running backs coach Charles Huff spoke
with the media on Thursday. The Nittany
Lions travel to Illinois on Saturday at noon (ESPN2). Take a look at a Q&A
Q: The running backs have talked about the "chin" concept that you have taught them. What kind of impact has that had on them in terms of good ball security?
Huff: "A lot of times coaches ask kids to do something, but they don't tell them how or why. When I got here, that was one of the first things that was brought to my attention that the backs in the past had a problem putting the ball on the ground. Going back and looking at all of the film from last year, the same problem would come up (holding the ball). A lot of times, coaches assume kids know how to hold the ball. You've got to really teach them from ground one. We started it with where you put your hands, where you put the ball on your chest, where it goes on your forearm and biceps. Chin is kind of the acronym that puts it all together so that you aren't yelling five different things when a kid is running down the field. But the key of it is that you want to kind of keep the ball as vertical as possible as long as possible because that limits the area defenders can put their helmet on and the area defenders are able to grab on it. And when it comes to getting hit, the vertical angle reduces the chances of the ball coming out. When I first got here, they thought it was a little awkward, but as things went on and we continued to show them the importance of it and how it helps them, and I really think the biggest part was that as the season went on and they were doing it and they didn't fumble the ball they started believing in it. And now that's kind of who they are. They take pride in being a group that doesn't put the ball on the ground. It will continue to grow."
Q: What did you see from the running game last week that helped create such a productive day?
Huff: "I think it's a true testament to the O-line. When the O-line goes well, the running back goes well. It's a true case because we were able to put either back in there, and they were able to do well because we got some guys back from injury, which creates a little more depth. As they go, we go. Both Akeel and Bill have done a good job being patient. When the opportunities have shown up, they have taken advantage of it. There is more continuity up front, and the result is a bigger running game and the offense is able to roll a little more efficiently if you can run the ball."
Q: What do you think has allowed your young gunners (Grant Haley and Christian Campbell) to be so successful on punt coverage this year?
Huff: "The one thing that is big when you talk about the maturity and growth of developing young talent is that you have got to be on the field and you've got to play. A lot of times it's difficult to get on the field on offense and defense as fast because there is a lot more learning. There is a lot more new learning and scheme things that go into it. Special teams is kind of one of those things that is the same across the board. One thing I wanted to do when I got here was keep it as simple as possible so that they can do the things they have been doing on the field their entire life. There is not a lot of thinking and checks. It's just letting you play fast and let you use your ability to be successful. And with that comes repetition. And now these guys are used to being out there. They are used to the speed of the game. They are used to running down the field and making plays. And what happens is, on offense and defense the game slows down for them. And now they are able to think because the game has slowed down. I think that comes from them being on special teams and having some success on special teams. They kind of see that it's the same game they have played their entire life."
Q: What have you seen from Daniel Pasquariello during the past couple weeks at practice that has translated into better results in the games?
Huff: "I think it's just him being out there. A lot of people need to remember that he had never played in an American football game. So this is his 10th American football game. Of course as the season goes, it's going to be new. It would be like you or I riding a bike for the very first time. We'd probably be a little wobbly. Over time, he's gotten more comfortable. On the first day of practice, he wasn't sure where all of his pads went. That was only a few weeks ago. So to go from that to where he is, and you help him understand that it is the same game that he has been playing. It's the same technique that you were using in Australia. It's the same technique of how to kick. We are just adding some things around him. Maybe things are a little bit different from a schematical standpoint, but it's just maturity and growth within the process. He still has a long way to go as far as maturation and development. As you become more comfortable, you become more confident. As you become more confident, you are able to take some more risks and do some things that may not be normal in your non-confident ability. And that's where he is at. The one thing he has really done is that he has worked his tail off to be more consistent. A lot of times you work with specialists and they try to kick their way out of it. And then they end up kicking their leg out. He's worked with his fundamentals. He's worked on his drops. He's gotten with snappers. He goes out on off days and works on his fundamentals, and it shows. He knows that we are looking for more from him, but he is getting to become who we expected him to be."
Q: How close do you think Grant Haley is to breaking off a big return for the special teams unit?
Huff: "I think he is a lot closer than people think he is. The one thing about a kickoff returner is that you need to have natural vision. That's why a lot of times, you love for your running back to be that guy. Even though you may scheme it up and say that things are going to hit here, when things are flying at 100 miles per hour, you've got to have a guy who can make one move and go at 100 miles per hour. The thing about Grant is that he' doesn't play running back. So for him reading blocks and him constantly being able to lean away from people and making people miss that's not something he does naturally because he doesn't do it everyday. He has that ability, but that's not something he does every day. The thing for Grant is that we don't change the return direction drastically every week, so that the picture is kind of consistent in his mind. Now, where that hurts you is that every team doesn't line up the same every week. So you are tweaking your return to help Grant without putting him in a spot where you say, it's going to split here every time. I think with Grant continuing to see the game and slow down that interception and return for a touchdown was kind of the a'ha moment. I'm looking for big things from him in the return game from here and definitely into the future."
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Illinois | Memorial Stadium | 12 p.m. | ESPN2
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State heads to Champaign on Saturday for a matchup with the Fighting Illini. Get to know Illinois in this week's scouting report.
Tim Beckman is in his third year as head coach at Illinois, with a record of 10-24 at Illinois and 31-40 overall. The Illini finished 2013 with a 4-8 mark, including 1-7 in the Big Ten. They returned 47 lettermen and 18 starters from last year.
Last Saturday, Illinois dropped to 4-6 overall and 1-5 in the Big Ten, falling 30-14 against Iowa. The Illini gained 235 yards, including 147 passing. Quarterback Wes Lunt completed 14-of-25 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown. Reilly O'Toole also saw time at quarterback, completing 3-of-6 passes for 45 yards and a score, while also rushing for 29 yards. Josh Ferguson gained 29 rushing yards on nine carries, while Donovonn Young had 25 yards on five attempts. Mike Dudek caught six passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns.
The Illini defense allowed 587 yards, with 304 coming on the ground. Linebacker Mason Monheim was one of three Illinois players to have double-digit tackles, leading the team with 15 stops. Safety Zane Petty recorded 13 tackles, including 0.5 TFL. Fellow safety Taylor Barton had 12 tackles and forced a fumble. Cornerback V'Angelo Bentley and tackle Jarrod Clements each had a sack.
Illinois averages 25.6 points per game, ranking ninth in the Big Ten. The Illini average 360.2 yards of total offense, ranking eighth. They gain 255.6 yards passing and 104.6 yards rushing, ranking second and 13th in the conference, respectively.
Lunt, a sophomore, and O'Toole, a senior, have split starts at quarterback this year. Lunt has started six games, completing 65 percent of his throws for 1,671 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. O'Toole has started the other four games, connecting on 55 percent of his pass attempts for 745 yards, five scores and six interceptions. O'Toole also has 106 rushing yards and a touchdown.
In the backfield, Ferguson, a 5-foot-10, 195-pound junior, averages nearly five yards per carry, with 581 yards and six touchdowns. Ferguson is also second on the team in receptions with 39, adding 318 yards and two scores. Young, a 6-foot, 220-pound senior, has contributed 248 yards and five touchdowns, while averaging 3.8 yards per carry. He also has 16 receptions for 82 yards.
Dudek, a 5-foot-11 freshman, leads the Illini with 51 catches for 787 yards and five touchdowns. Geronimo Allison, 6-foot-4, has 515 yards and five touchdowns on 34 receptions. Junior Justin Hardee, 6-foot-1, has contributed 18 catches for 230 yards and a touchdown, while senior Martize Barr, 6-foot, has added 17 receptions for 234 yards and two scores. Senior tight end Jon Davis, 6-foot-3, has 12 catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns.
The Illinois offensive line includes two seniors, two sophomores and a redshirt freshman. They have combined for 79 career starts.
The Illini defense allows 36 points per game, ranking 14th in the Big Ten and 111th in the nation. They also allow 493.5 yards per game, also 14th in the conference and 114th in the NCAA. Opponents average 266.9 yards rushing and 226.6 yards passing, ranking 14th and 11th in the conference, respectively. Illinois has forced 12 turnovers.
Tackle Austin Teitsma leads the defensive line with 41 tackles, including 7.5 for loss and two sacks. End Jihad Ward has made 37 stops, with four for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. Fellow end Dejazz Woods has 25 tackles, three for loss and two sacks.
Monheim, a junior, ranks second in the Big Ten in total tackles per game, averaging 9.8. He has 97 tackles, 37 solo, 6.5 for loss and a sack. Monheim also has three forced fumbles and an interception. T.J. Neal Jr. has 77 tackles, 5.5 for loss, an interception and a forced fumble. Earnest Thomas III, playing the star position, has recorded 47 stops, 27 solo, 8.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
In the secondary, Petty leads the unit with 90 tackles, including 39 solo and 1.5 for loss. Petty has broken up seven passes. Barton has 88 tackles, 41 solo, two forced fumbles and an interception, which he returned 77 yards for a touchdown against Western Kentucky. Bentley has 43 tackles and returned an interception 45 yards for a score against Texas State. Bentley also has a 12-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Minnesota. Fellow cornerback Eaton Spence has 46 tackles and five pass breakups.
Taylor Zalewski and David Reisner have split time at kicker, with each converting on 1-of-3 attempts. Punter Justin DuVernois averages 44.9 yards per kick, ranking 11th in the nation. Bentley handles the kick return and punt return duties. He averages 22.1 yards per kick return, with a long of 67 yards, and 10.2 yards per punt return.
Penn State leads the all-time series 17-4, on the field. The Nittany Lions won last year's game, 24-17, in overtime, at Beaver Stadium.
What Tim Beckman is saying about Penn State:
"In all phases of the game, they play extremely hard and with great effort. They are very well coached. On defense, you can see a lot of guys that have been involved in that program and college football and play at a Big Ten level."
"[Hackenberg], as he's gone through this conference as a freshman and sophomore has been extremely successful. You see a football team that has played well and understands how to win. It will be a tough game for us, a four-quarter battle."
Contributions on all of the 2014 Opponent Previews provided by GoPSUsports.com Student Writer Paul Marboe.
James Franklin Transcript - Nov. 18
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lions (6-4, 2-4) head on the road for the final time during the Big Ten season on Saturday with a trip to Illinois (4-6, 1-5) for a noon kick on ESPN2.
Head coach James Franklin reviewed Saturday's victory over Temple and previewed the matchup against the Fighting Illini on Tuesday afternoon inside the Beaver Stadium Media Room.
Behind a big day on the ground and another dominant effort from the Nittany Lion defense, Penn State powered past Temple on Saturday (30-13). The running back duo of Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton accounted for 222 rushing yards and two touchdowns behind a strong outing from the offensive line.
"I think the offense goes the way the O-line goes. I think the defense goes the way the D-line goes," said Franklin. "So I'm happy with Akeel (Lynch), and I think Akeel has done some nice things. But we didn't go from Bill (Belton) almost having a hundred yards and Akeel having over a hundred yards in a game because they're doing something different or that Coach Galt got them in the weight room and they're stronger and faster than they were four weeks ago. It's the development and the confidence of the offensive line and getting some of those veteran guys back."
Defensively, the Nittany Lions forced five turnovers and held Temple to 248 total yards. The list of turnovers included a pick-six from freshman cornerback Grant Haley. The defense has been lights out for 10 weeks. Penn State is ranked in the top five in three of the four major defensive categories. The Nittany Lions are No. 1 in the nation against the run (83.1 ypg.), No. 3 in the nation in total defense (265.6 ypg) and No. 4 in the nation in scoring defense (16.2 ppg).
"It's an awesome thing. We're very proud of the accomplishments that they've made," Franklin said. "But ultimately, it's about wins. If we could finish this season going undefeated one week at a time and trade some rankings on defense, we'd do that. We'd do that. I know our defensive players would do that and our defensive coaches would do that. I think for us to do that, we're going to need our defense playing well. So those things go hand in hand. If the statistics work out that way, at the end of the year we'll be excited."
Fielding the second youngest team in the nation, Penn State has had contributions from a host of young talent in 2014. Through 10 games, nine true freshmen have contributed for the Nittany Lions. That includes five on defense, three on offense and one on special teams. Against Temple, there were snaps on defense with three true freshmen lined up in the secondary. And not only have true freshmen played, the group has been instrumental in the team's success on both sides of the ball and on special teams.
Last Saturday's victory marked a special occasion for the Nittany Lion players who were on the roster in July of 2012. Especially for the group of 12 seniors, the sixth win and eligibility to extend the season with a bowl game is a boost. However, the Lions are solely focused on the task at hand this week. The program lives by the motto of one game at a time, and this week as no exception. The focus is on Illinois.
"We're focused on playing Illinois this week at the end of the year," said Franklin. "If people tell us we have an opportunity to go somewhere, we'll be excited about going there. But we're focused on Illinois, and that's how you make sure that you're able to come out and play as consistent as you possibly can week-in and week-out, by taking it one game at a time."
The Nittany Lions and Illini will meet for the 22nd time on Saturday.
Press Conference Notes
- Head coach James Franklin announced at the beginning of the weekly press conference that senior Ryan Keiser is out of the hospital and on his way back to State College on Tuesday.
- Franklin on the Illinois offense:
"No-huddle, spread offense. I think they've slowed it down a little bit compared to what we saw last year. I think they've slowed it down. They're a balanced attack. They're No. 2 in the Big Ten in passing offense. They're No. 4 in the Big Ten in passing efficiency. They're No. 3 in the Big Ten in completion percentage. Quarterback, Wes Lunt, we've known him for a long time. Actually recruited him. Him getting hurt I think set them back a little bit. He's back now, completing 65 percent of his passes. Excellent thrower."
- Franklin on the Illinois defense:
"They're a 4-3 defense. They'll press you on the outsides. They'll bring inside pressures. They're No. 6 in the Big Ten in fumbles recovered, No. 1 in the Big Ten in defensive touchdowns at three.
- Franklin on the Illinois special teams:
"They do a wide range of things trying to cause deception. Their coverage units do a really good job, and they're No. 8 in the nation in net punting. So, again, that goes back to us talking about field position."
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