No. 10 Penn State opens conference play at Illinois
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By TERRY TOWERY
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) No. 10 Penn State brings its high-powered offense to Illinois on Friday night, heavily favored against a young Illini team that is off to an encouraging start.
The Nittany Lions (3-0) are a 27-point favorite, not exactly a new situation for an Illini team that is used to being the underdog. But Illinois (2-1) nearly upset South Florida last week and shows little fear going into the Big Ten opener for both teams.
"We're going to show up excited about seeing exactly how much improvement we can make and how we come back from adversity," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "Penn State has been one of the top teams in our conference for a few years now. We understand the challenge."
The Nittany Lions have outscored their last two opponents 114-16 overall and 72-0 in the second half. Quarterback Trace McSorley has accounted for 66 points so far this season to rank second in the Big Ten and seventh in the FBS. On the other side of the ball, the Penn State defense has put significant pressure on opposing quarterbacks, ranking fourth in FBS with 4.33 sacks per game.
Penn State coach James Franklin said he respects Smith and isn't taking Illinois for granted.
"They put up pretty good numbers statistically offensively," Franklin said. "It's going to be a challenge for us."
Illinois defeated Kent State and Western Illinois as expected and proved more than a match for South Florida in the 25-19 loss. Smith saw much to be optimistic about in that game.
"We got better in a lot of ways. Offense, defense, special teams," Smith said. "There were things that we liked, things we can build on. We started fast. We had an opportunity to win right up until the last play."
Illinois quarterback AJ Bush has been out with a hamstring injury suffered two weeks ago and may not play. Freshman M.J. Rivers has played well in Bush's absence. Whoever starts will have his hands full. Penn State's defense is ranked in the top 40 in the nation and is strong at every position. Illinois is hopeful offensive coordinator Rod Smith's spread offense will help. Running back Mike Epstein has more than 100 yards rushing in the last two games, the first Illini to do back-to-back 100-yard games since 2013.
Heisman Trophy hopeful Trace McSorley continues to torch defenses with his precise execution of Penn State's run-pass option. The senior quarterback has thrown for 603 yards and five touchdowns against one interception. He has also rushed for 143 yards and six touchdowns. He is a major concern for Illinois.
McSorley faces a tough Illinois defense that is tied for the lead in the Big Ten (with Ohio State) with a plus-five turnover margin and has at least one takeaway in their last 17 games.
"I think the biggest factor in this game, no doubt about it is going to be turnovers," Franklin said. "I think they've gotten a turnover in 17 straight games. They have not turned the ball over this year, one of only a few programs in the country that has done that. And they've gotten multiple turnovers in almost every game this season. That's going to be the storyline of the game. That's what they're doing a really good job of."
Penn State's Miles Sanders is considered one of the nation's best tailbacks and has 49 carries for 295 yards and two touchdowns so far this season. The Illinois rushing attack ranks fourth in the Big Ten and 23rd in the FBS, averaging 243.0 yards per game. Epstein (7.17) and Reggie Corbin (6.49) rank second and fourth, respectively, in the Big Ten in yards per carry. Both totals rank in the top 25 nationally.
Updated September 21, 2018