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Penn State-Illinois Prediction: Is Another Big Ten Shutout Looming?

Penn State should overwhelm Illinois, even if quarterback Sean Clifford doesn't play.

Penn State brings a host of fresh storylines to Saturday's game against Illinois. Namely: Who's the starting quarterback, how many running backs are healthy and what happens at defensive tackle?

But the Lions should have plenty of room to answer those questions against perhaps the Big Ten's worst team, one whose own coach questioned the roster this week.

Week 7 is stacking up as an intriguing prelude to Separation Saturday on Oct. 30, when Penn State visits Ohio State and Michigan State hosts Michigan. Off we go.

No. 7 Penn State (5-1) vs. Illinois (2-5)

  • When: Noon ET Saturday
  • Where: Beaver Stadium
  • TV: ABC
  • Streaming: fuboTV
  • Betting Line: Penn State is a 24-point favorite, according to SI SportsBook
  • Series History: Penn State leads 20-5
  • Last Meeting: Penn State 56-21 in 2020
  • Streaks: Penn State has won four straight home games against Illinois

How Will Penn State Assemble Its Puzzle?

When we last saw the Lions, they were leaving Iowa with five injured players following a 23-20 loss. The most significant were to quarterback Sean Clifford (who might play) and to defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, who is out for the season.

Head coach James Franklin played coy this week about his quarterback situation, refraining from naming a starter publicly while calling the situation "fluid." If Clifford is out, expect offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich to tweak his playbook to fit the starter's comfort zones and mask his limitations. The fix should be good for one game, if necessary. Defensive tackle is another issue.

Mustipher's loss is significant on a line that already had depth limitations. Starter Antonio Shelton transferred to Florida before the season, and tackle Hakeem Beamon has been trying to fight his way back from a 2018 injury for a few years.

Derrick Tangelo, a Duke transfer, has made an immediate and substantial impact, but the Lions need more. Dvon Ellies, who played with Mustipher at Maryland's McDonogh School, has the opportunity to emerge as a long-term starter. Coziah Izzard will get into the rotation as well.

Then there are the running backs, who have been uneven this season. If John Lovett and Devyn Ford, both injured at Iowa, can't play, the Lions will be thin once again. Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee certainly can shoulder the workload, but someone needs to take charge of that backfield. Our vote is for Lee.

Penn State Players to Watch

Jahan Dotson: The receiver leads the Big Ten with 43 receptions (and no drops) but caught just two passes at Iowa after Clifford left the game. His streak of consecutive games with a touchdown catch ended at six. Time to start a new one.

Mike Miranda: The center is always at the center of Penn State's offense but will be more important if Ta'Quan Roberson or Christian Veilleux starts at quarterback. The Lions can't afford eight false starts again.

Ellis Brooks: Franklin said that Brooks "is playing as good as any middle linebacker in the country right now." Illinois has two good backs in Chase Brown and Josh McCray who will keep him busy.

Penn State's Ellis Brooks (13) and Jesse Luketa celebrate against Iowa.

Penn State's Ellis Brooks (13) and Jesse Luketa celebrate against Iowa.

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Illinois Players to Watch

Isaiah Williams: Franklin spotlighted the receiver as one player Penn State has to track. Williams, who played quarterback at Penn State last season, leads Illinois with 32 catches and has some playmaking skills.

Artur Sitkowski: The former Rutgers quarterback will start at Penn State if Brandon Peters isn't healthy. Sitkowski, a 54-percent career passer, went 3 for 7 with two interceptions against the Lions in 2018.

Owen Carney Jr: Illinois' top inside linebacker, Jake Hansen, underwent knee surgery this week and is out for the season. That puts more pressure on Carney, the top outside linebacker who has a team-high 4.5 sacks.

Five Things You Should Know

1. Penn State is wearing its Generations of Greatness throwback uniforms for the fourth time. The Lions are 2-1 when wearing the uniforms.

2. Penn State will host its 101st homecoming. The Lions have won seven of their last nine homecoming games and are 72-23-5 lifetime.

3. Kicker Jordan Stout has converted 33 of his 35 kickoffs into touchbacks. Penn State is the only Big Ten team that hasn't allowed a kickoff return this season.

4. Illinois is playing its first game vs. a top-10 team since beating then-No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23 in 2019.

5. Penn State is 8-2 against the spread in its last 10 games, and four of its last six games have gone under, according to Oddsshark.

Prediction

There's really no reason for Clifford to play Saturday, other than for him to stay loose for Ohio State (or for Penn State to cover a 24-point spread). The Lions likely will be fine with Roberson, Veilleux or both playing quarterback against the Illini.

The defense has a legitimate chance to pitch a second shutout against a Big Ten opponent, something Penn State hasn't done since joining the conference. We'll err on the side of caution offensively, allowing the Lions to gear up for Columbus.

Penn State 23, Illinois 3

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