Penn State Football: Before Ohio State, Nittany Lions Face Illinois

The Illinois game might be the one that Penn State fans are forgetting this season. It’s sandwiched in between the last out of conference game, which ended up being a blowout win, and the biggest home game of the season. The latter, of course, is the white out game against Ohio State.

Everyone in State College wants some revenge for how things turned out last year, and the game is even more anticipated because it’s happening early in the season. No need to wait until Halloween week, this time. Before that game, though, the Nittany Lions will travel to Illinois and will face the Fighting Illini in a night game.

The rundown on Illinois

It’s not that Illinois is expected to do much against Penn State, but Appalachian State wasn’t expected to either. It would be a mistake for the team to overlook this game, especially because PSU is the highest ranked team that Illinois should face this season.

For Penn State, this is a game to be moved past quickly, to get to one of the biggest ones of the season. For Illinois, this might be their only chance of the year to play on Fox Sports 1 in a Friday night game in front of their own fans. But while the occasion is a big one for the Illini, their on the field results haven’t been so great.

Freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers was thrown into the starting job without a lot of preparation, after the favorite for the starting job, Cam Thomas, left the team for personal reasons. Last week out, the opponent was USF and Illinois leaned more on their running backs than their passing game. Their defense also helped them out with a couple of interceptions,

That same defense also showed some weaknesses when they needed to hold a lead and keep USF from storming back to a win. A touchdown to the corner of the end zone put USF back in striking distance at the top of the fourth quarter, and things went downhill from there. It’s not that one touchdown stole the game away from Illinois, and it took a pretty good throw from former Alabama player Blake Barnett to make it happen, after all.

But after that, Illinois allowed a deep pass from Barnett following Randall St. Felix beating their man coverage. They managed to hold USF to just a field goal, but when the Bulls had the ball again, Barnett’s pass to Darnell Salomon wasn’t even contested. It was one of the most wide open touchdowns you’ll ever see, and if Illinois wants to have any hope of hanging with Penn State, they can’t let plays like that happen again.

The verdict is that, while Penn State can’t just look past this game and only think about the one against Ohio State, this Illinois team isn’t in the shape to pull off the upset on Friday night. They might make things momentarily interesting, but after Penn State dropped 63 points on Kent State, Illinois should fear their offense.

Blake Barnett gave them serious trouble, so it’s not a stretch to say that Trace McSorley might do the same thing. Not only that, but their running game will likely have less success against the PSU defense.

They left a clear weakness for Penn State to exploit with their performance against USF, and they can expect just that to happen. The main question is, will they keep things close and surprise everyone by playing well in front of a national audience?

Big Ten: The Illinois Quarterback Job Falls On Cam Thomas

In the last Big Ten quarterbacks article, we looked at the Northwestern Wildcats and their QB situation. It’s only fair that in the next article, we look elsewhere in the state and check out the Illinois Fighting Illini. Unlike the other Big Ten team in the state, Illini fans can hardly be content with their team’s results.

Their two wins came against Ball State and Western Kentucky, in the first two games of the season. Every game outside of those two went down as a loss, and as you would expect from a team with a two win record, Illinois experimented with quarterbacks.

Jeff George Jr. had the most snaps and attempted 181 passes, throwing for 1,273 yards and seven touchdowns all season. However, Chayce Crouch also attempted 91 passes, ending the season with 443 yards and a single touchdown. Freshman Cam Thomas also had a bit of playing time, with 66 attempts and 375 yards. It seems like Illinois should have options going into next season.

But they really don’t.

A bad turn of events hit the Illini, and now the pressure falls on one player. After announcing in January that he was going to transfer, Jeff George Jr. picked Michigan as the school where he’ll spend his last two years of eligibility. At least Illinois has Chayce Crouch, right? Well, Crouch decided to walk away from football despite being a junior last season and having one year left during his college career.

“I don’t think there is anything left to give. I have decided to hang up the cleats and end my career as a Fighting Illini. At this point in my life, this is what is best for me and I hope you all respect my decision,” Crouch wrote. With his retirement, only one of the Illini quarterbacks to attempt a pass last season is still on the team.

Cam Thomas played in four games last season, his pass attempts increasing game by game as the season came to a close. The numbers weren’t good. 42% completion percentage, no passing touchdowns, and five interceptions. But with the team as a whole going winless in the conference, you can’t blame all of it on Thomas.

The Illini just weren’t a very good football team last season, and there was no realistic way that a freshman quarterback like Thomas would make them look better after entering so late into the season. Still, Thomas has the potential to progress his game entering his second season. The starting job will fall to him as the only experienced quarterback on the roster, and against Northwestern, he had one of the only bright moments of the game for Illinois and showed what he can do while tucking and running.

In the Illinois spring game, he showed his progress in the passing game and threw a 71 yard touchdown to Caleb Reams. “He can do everything. He’s so smart, he puts us in a great position to make good plays,” said teammate Reggie Corbin, about Thomas. During spring ball, head coach Lovie Smith emphasized that while Thomas isn’t completely ready, he’s shown potential and is moving in the right direction.

Whether or not Thomas will be starting material by the time the season rolls around remains to be seen. They really need him to be. The team has enough problems to deal with next season without worrying about whether or not the quarterback will blow games.