Illinois started the season 6-0, but have stumbled the past two weeks against Ohio State and Purdue. The Fighting Illini currently sit fourth in the Leaders Division, behind Penn State, Wisconsin and Purdue. Illinois is facing perhaps its toughest three-game stretch of the season starting this weekend at Penn State, followed by home matchups with Michigan and Wisconsin.
Penn State, meanwhile, is riding a six-game winning streak of its own and jumped back into the polls this week after last Saturday's 34-24 win over Northwestern. The offense came alive for its best performance in league play against the Wildcats, and the Penn State defense has continued to prove stout. The win over Northwestern was the 408th in Joe Paterno's career, tying him with Eddie Robinson for the most in NCAA history.
Like Illinois, the Nittany Lions embark on a formidable schedule in November. Their final three games feature Nebraska at home and back-to-back road trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin to close the season.
Penn State leads the all-time series with Illinois, 14-4, although the Fighting Illini won 33-13 last season.
Illinois' offense struggled to get going last weekend against the Boilermakers, and down 21-0, didn't score its first touchdown until Jason Ford found paydirt from 16-yards out with just 8:12 remaining. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase added a two-yard scoring run with under a minute left to cut the lead to 21-14, but that was the extent of the Illinois scoring on a day when the offense generated a respectable 366 yards of total offense.
Scheelhaase was responsible for 217 yards passing, which was an improvement from the week before against Ohio State, when he threw for 169 yards and one touchdown against tow interceptions in a loss to the Buckeyes. On the year, Scheelhaase is 23rd in the country in passing efficiency (150.6), and has thrown for over 1,600 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. He is also the team's leading rusher, gaining 412 yards and five touchdowns through eight games, but Ohio State and Purdue limited him 65 yards combined the last two weeks. Scheelhaase has one of the country's most productive receiver at his disposal in A.J. Jenkins, who ranks 11th in the country in catches per game (7.75) and receiving yards (123.3).
Ford averages 49 yards per outing, and has scored six touchdowns on the ground this year. Troy Pollard and Donovan Young average 48.5 and 44.8 yards per game respectively, and Young has scored four times in 2011. Illinois ranks fourth in the Big Ten in both rushing (199.2) and total offense (417.1).
The Illinois defense didn't give up a heap of yards last weekend against the Boilermakers (178 passing, 126 rushing), but Purdue wore down Illinois with methodical drives. Illinois boasts one of the best defenses in the Big Ten, and the unit has played an integral role in the team's 6-2 start. The Fighting Illini, who give up just 18.1 points per game, are tenth nationally in total defense (289), with 199.2 coming on the ground and 187.1 coming through the air. The unit is certainly up-tempo, ranking eighth in the country in sacks per game (3.3) and sixth in tackles for loss (8.1).
Matt McGloin, who has split time much of this season with Rob Bolden, took all snaps last weekend against Northwestern and had an efficient game. McGloin finished 17-of-26 for 192 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, and received an important boost from a running game that generated 197 yards on 38 carries. Silas Redd had himself a fine ball game, rushing 18 times for 164 yards and one touchdown.
Penn State averages 375.1 yards per game, with 168.8 coming on the ground. Redd is the catalyst, ranking third in the Big Ten in rushing (108.6). Redd has registered 100 yard rushing games in four consecutive contests, and has scored eight touchdowns through eight games.
The Nittany Lions post 206.2 yards passing per outing, and McGloin is 47th in the country in passing efficiency (139.1). He has thrown for 1,095 yards to date, with seven touchdowns against two interceptions. Receiver Derek Moye has been out the past two games, which cleared the way last week for an impressive performance from Devon Smith, who had six catches for 110 yards and one score against the Wildcats.
"I mean they're pretty comfortable about what they're doing. I think earlier in the year, they might have been searching - I think they probably would have wanted to get one quarterback," said Illinois head coach Ron Zook of Penn State's offensive identity. "But they found out the way they're doing it now is a pretty effective way and so that's kind of the way they're rolling now."
Although Northwestern was able to move the football and finished with 312 passing yards last weekend, the Wildcats produced just 94 yards rushing and were shutout in the second half while Penn State created separation in the game. Penn State's defense is among the elite in college football, and is at the heart of the team's six game winning streak. The Nittany Lions rank eighth in total defense (281.8), fifth in scoring defense (13.1) and fifth in passing efficiency defense (97.4). Penn State is giving up 101.8 yards rushing and 180 yards passing per game, and rank third in the Big Ten in both sacks per game (2.6) and tackles for loss (7.3). Gerald Hodges leads the team with 58 tackles.
"You know, if you're a competitor, that's what you want to play, you want to play against the best," Zook said of playing Penn State's defense. "You know, have the opportunity to, you know, compete against them. Their front's basically the same, you know, they don't do a whole lot of things."