CHAMPAIGN — Penn State will play in a hostile environment for the first time Saturday, opening its Big Ten season on the road at Illinois in a nationally televised game.
The Illini are coming off a disappointing loss last week at Kansas. They hope a raucous home crowd can carry them to an upset win over the No. 7-ranked Nittany Lions.
Penn State coach James Franklin said his team knows what to expect, especially with the Illini promoting an “orange-out.” The Nittany Lions ran into a similar hornet’s nest last year.
“It should be a great atmosphere at Illinois, a great environment for college football,” he said. “We opened our Big
Ten season last year at Purdue. There was a black-out there.”
Penn State beat Purdue 35-31, rallying from a 24-21 deficit after three quarters.
The Nittany Lions (2-0) have beaten West Virginia 38-15 and Delaware 63-7, and are opening their Big Ten season on the road for the eighth straight season and 13th time in 14 years.
The Illini opened at home with a come-from-behind, 30-28 win over Toledo before stubbing their toes, losing 34-23 at Kansas after falling behind 28-7 at halftime.
Franklin has circled receiver Isaiah Williams and quarterback Luke Altmyer as players to watch on the Illinois offense.
“They’re always trying to find ways to get the ball in No. 1’s hands,” Franklin said of Williams, a former quarterback who has caught at least one pass in all 27 games he’s played as a receiver since switching positions before the start of the 2021 season.
As for Altmyer, “he’s really helped them,” Franklin said of the transfer from Ole Miss. “He’s able to make plays with his arm and his legs.”
Altmyer had a 72-yard run for a touchdown against Kansas. He’s the Illini’s leading rusher with 139 yards.
For Illinois coach Bret Bielema, this was a week of reflection. The loss to Kansas didn’t sit well with the Illini, and his team is underdogs by 14 1/2 points according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
“We needed to do a self-inventory and have some difficult conversations, but you can grow from that,” he said. “The biggest thing for us is we can’t let Kansas beat us twice. We have to focus on Penn State.”
Bielema is impressed by the Nittany Lions.
“They’re explosive on offense and they give you a lot of looks on defense,” he said. “They’re talented and deep.
When one of their talented players leaves the field, there’s another one right behind him, refreshed and ready to go.”
Penn State sophomore quarterback Drew Allar hasn’t played like a first-year starter. He’s completed 43 of 55 passes for 529 yards and four touchdowns, a 78% completion rate.
GROUND GAME BY COMMITTEE
Penn State tailbacks Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen are expected to get plenty of chances to run the ball against Illinois. But Minnesota transfer Trey Potts could see an increased workload too. He ran for 56 yards on seven carries against Delaware.
“We have three guys we’ve got a lot of confidence in to run the ball,” Franklin said.
BAILEY IS BACK
Illinois defensive back Matthew Bailey is expected to make his season debut Saturday after being sidelined since spring by a foot injury.
That’s good news for the leaky Illini secondary. Bailey impressed last season as a freshman, picking off three passes and scoring on a fumble recovery while covering a punt return.
“It will be nice to get Matthew back in the rotation,” Bielema said. “He embodies everything we need in the back end. He’s been an assistant coach of sorts during practice. We’re happy to have him back on the field.”
Illinois set a team record last season with 24 interceptions, but suffered major losses in the secondary. Defensive backs Devon Witherspoon, Jartavius Martin and Sydney Brown were selected in the first, second and third rounds, respectively, of the NFL draft.
PLAYING FROM BEHIND
Slow starts have hurt the Illini. They trailed Toledo by 12 points in the third quarter before rallying for the win. It was the largest comeback victory for Illinois since the school-record 25-point deficit it overcame in a 2019 win over Michigan State. Kansas led Illinois 28-7 at halftime.
It took nine overtimes to decide the winner of the last Penn State-Illinois game. The Illini won 20-18 at No. 7 Penn State in 2021 in the longest game in college football history.
“I don’t know if there will ever be another game like that,” Franklin said. “What it taught everyone in the country is you better have enough two-point plays in your playbook.”