Penn State defense must tackle emerging problem vs. Illinois
STATE COLLEGE — Penn State defenders spent much of the last two games lunging at ball carriers only to bounce off or wiff.
Those missed tackles have been a problem for a defense that's been solid under coordinator Bob Shoop. Penn State allowed 68 points and nearly 900 yards to No. 1 Ohio State and Maryland in part because of mobile quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Perry Hills.
Up next is Illinois (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) and although quarterback Wes Lunt isn't a runner, he's usually well protected. The Illini defense has allowed just eight sacks so far.
While Penn State players missed 13 tackles against Maryland and handfuls more against Ohio State, generating pressure hasn't been an issue. The Nittany Lions (6-2, 3-1) lead the country with 31 sacks. Carl Nassib added to his NCAA leading 12.5 when he sacked Hills late in the fourth quarter to all but preserve Penn State's 31-30 win over Maryland last week.
"It's our strength versus their strength," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "So it will be an interesting challenge."
Perhaps more interesting will be how Penn State's defense responds — and if it can tackle a shifty group of Illini receivers — and whether Lunt can stand in the pocket and spread the ball around.
With four upperclassmen linemen, Lunt is completing 57 percent of his passes and averaging 243 yards. He's thrown double-digit pass totals to six players.
"He goes through his progressions and does a very good job of finding the open man," Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda said. "He sniffs out blitzes well and he's going to read defenses also."
Cabinda isn't agreeing that poor tackling is a result of fatigue. Penn State will have played nine straight games after this weekend, with a bye scheduled for Nov. 14.
"It's all fundamentals," Cabinda said.
Better D:The Fighting Illini ranked 112th in total defense each of the last two seasons and surrendered 481 and 456 yards per game in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Illinois is currently 33rd in total defense and is giving up 344 yards per game. Interim coach Bill Cubit said against the sack-happy Lions "We've got to make sure we protect the quarterback." He also said he expects senior safety Clayton Fejedelem to play after a deep bruise to his knee.
Injuries: Illinois will be without starting tight end Tyler White (knee). Running back Josh Ferguson is unlikely to play, missing his third straight game with a shoulder injury. Penn State right tackle Andrew Nelson is questionable with a knee injury.
O-Line shuffer: If Nelson can't play, Penn State will likely move Brendan Mahon to right tackle where he played when Nelson was out earlier this season. Penn State's used six different starting line combinations with only right guard Brian Gaia starting every game at the same spot.
Go long: Penn State receiver Geno Lewis emerged early in his career as a player who could make tough catches in traffic. He's been inconsistent but made the most of limited playing time. He went over a defender for his first touchdown of the season against Maryland and could factor more into the downfield passing game that's been effective with Chris Godwin running deep routes.
"They win their one-on-one battles consistently," Christian Hackenberg said of his receivers. "I think that group's playing with a ton of confidence right now."
New grass: Signs urging visitors to keep off Beaver Stadium's Kentucky bluegrass bordered the field as workers prepared to line and paint the new grass earlier this week. It's the final step after crews replaced the 10-year-old sod that took a beating though five-straight games on mostly rainy weekends. Nearly 70,000 square feet of sod was installed over four days two weeks ago.