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Early look at the Illinois Fighting Illini

7/28/2013

Every day this week, NittanyNation will continue taking a closer look at a different game this season and how the matchup stacks up for PSU. Up today: Illinois.

For as long as Tim Beckman remains the Illinois coach, Bill O'Brien and the Penn State fan base aren't going to forget about last summer -- or how Beckman and Co. arrived on campus in an attempt to "poach" players.

Of course, Beckman might not be the Illinois coach much longer.

ESPN's coach of the year and the struggling Illinois coach didn't shake hands before last year's contest and, after the game, the two briefly met with each other and then shook hands. Kind of. We think their hands touched. (If you don't remember that, don't worry -- you could've missed the exchange if you blinked.)

There's bad blood here, clearly, but it's also not something O'Brien wants to speak about publicly. PSU's trying to move on, and Beckman is trying to find some way to transform one of the nation's worst teams in 2012 into respectable group in 2013.

That's a tall task for Beckman, and he's hoping a handful of first-year starters and an infusion of junior college players can turn it around. If they can't, Beckman might not be around for Year 3.

When: Time TBA on Nov. 2 at Beaver Stadium

Last season: Illinois (2-10, 0-8 Big Ten)

Series history: PSU 16-4-0

Biggest question marks: Basically, question marks encompass the entire team outside of linebacker. There's just not a lot of potential or ability on this team, which is why it lost by an average of 23 points in every B1G game last season and why it hired five new assistants over the offseason.

Nine starters return on offense. But it's nearly the same offensive line that ranked No. 111 in sacks allowed and No. 118 in tackles-for-loss allowed. It's the same running game that ranked No. 97, and it's the same passing game that ranked No. 107.

The question marks continue on defense, which might actually be in worse shape than the offense. The secondary boasts just one returning starter and is one of the most inexperienced in the country. It played relatively well last season, but there'll definitely be a drop-off in 2013. The defensive line isn't much better and is headlined by Tim Kynard, who finished with 18 tackles in 2012. There isn't an Achilles' heel on this team; the team is the Achilles' heel.

Biggest strengths: Linebacker. Senior Jonathan Brown is the best player this defense has to offer and missed some time in 2012. He's an underrated B1G linebacker who's all over the field, and middle linebacker Mason Monheim isn't far behind. Only three players return on defense, and linebacker has two of them -- so it's easy to point to this position as a strength.

Who to watch: QB Nathan Scheelhaase (or QB Reilly O'Toole). What kind of Scheelhaase will the Fighting Illini get this season? As an underclassman, he tossed 30 touchdowns to 16 picks and threw for nearly 4,000 yards. Last season, he threw twice as many interceptions (8) as touchdowns (4), and his rushing stats also declined by more than 50 percent.

For this offense to have any chance at success, any chance at scoring three touchdowns, Scheelhaase will have to be much improved from last season. If he's not, Beckman won't hesitate to try out another signal-caller. Defenses will key in on these two, and how they respond will dictate whether Illinois can end the season with more than a pair of wins.

What you might not know: OL Ryan Nowicki was the lone Penn State player to transfer to a Big Ten school when he decided to leave Happy Valley for Champaign, Ill. It likely wasn't the haul Beckman had in mind -- but it was better than nothing.

Well, not anymore. As it turns out, Nowicki didn't like Illinois much either. He's transferring again -- this time to Northern Arizona, which is closer to home. AZCentral reported that he would likely receive a family/medical hardship so he could play right away.

The initial move didn't sit well with a lot of PSU players. But CB Stephon Morris, one of the more outspoken players on the 2012 team, fired the first volley last August: "That's a coward move."

Early prediction: PSU 42-17. The Lions rack up more than 400 yards of offense, and Deion Barnes has a field day on defense.