Last updated: February 17. 2013 4:05AM - 118 Views

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Two wins, seven points allowed. Two losses, 97 points allowed.

It's tough to find a bigger disparity in results from this first month of the season than at Illinois. The Illini defense was dominant in victories against Western Michigan and Charleston Southern, a particularly awful FCS team.

By contrast, things could hardly have gone worse while being steamrolled by Arizona State and Louisiana Tech.

So what's the common denominator for Penn State to study headed into Saturday's Big Ten opener in Champaign?

Both the Sun Devils and Bulldogs run full-blown spread offenses -- up-tempo, no-huddle schemes predicated on quick passes to neutralize blitzes.

While most of Illinois' top talent is on defense, new coordinator Tim Banks has struggled to adapt against the spread, a fact not lost on Penn State coach Bill O'Brien.

"All of us as coaches, we all tend to have some copycat in us," O'Brien said. "That's from studying film and things. So we try to do things that other teams have had success with."

One way or another, the Nittany Lions will look to keep the Illinois defense frustrated.

After a particularly humbling 52-24 loss to the Bulldogs at home last week, some Illini players openly questioned their coaching staff.

"Last year, we blitzed a lot more with our linebackers," Akeem Spence, an imposing nose tackle and future NFLer, told The News-Gazette in Champaign. "And this year, you know, they're sitting back, and they've got to read. We were able to bring pressure from just about anywhere, from the corners. ... We just brought it from a lot of different angles. That's what we were used to."

Injuries to top safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull have contributed to the Illini's more conservative approach on defense. Both, however, are expected to play Saturday, which could allow Illinois to take more risks defensively.

The question that remains is whether Penn State will be able to exploit these same issues. Though the Lions' offense has shifted in favor of the pass under O'Brien, the team does not run a dedicated spread.

But O'Brien refers to his scheme as a "gameplan offense," one that can transform from week-to-week to best attack the opponent. On Saturday, that could mean more time spent in the no-huddle.

"We'll have a no-huddle gameplan going into every game," O'Brien said. "And the flow of the game basically determines how much you're going to use no-huddle. When you play a team that pressures quite a bit, no-huddle becomes more involved in your gameplan.

"Our players are doing a really (good job with it). It's really pretty neat to see."

Helping out the Lions will be the likely returns of key starters like tailback Bill Belton and left tackle Donovan Smith. Both were back to full practice this week and are expected to play against Illinois. Exactly how much they play, however, is unknown.

Smith would help shore up the Lions' pass protection, particularly if the plan is to drop back and throw much of the time.

Belton, who suffered a nagging ankle injury back in the opener, brings versatility as a receiver out of the backfield and a useful checkdown target for quarterback Matt McGloin.

"He's back to his old self," McGloin said. "He looks really smooth with his cuts and he's running well in practice. He hasn't lost a step … and the offense will be better because he's back."

Jones set to transfer

Departed quarterback Paul Jones will remain enrolled at Penn State for the rest of the semester before looking to transfer for the spring, according to O'Brien.

"It was a tough decision for Paul and for us," O'Brien said Thursday on his weekly radio show. "Paul felt at the end of the day that he wanted a fresh start. … I wish Paul the best. I have a lot of great feelings for Paul. He's a great kid.

"His dream is to be a starting quarterback somewhere. That's what he wants to do, and that's what he's going to do."


Penn State

at Illinois

Noon, Saturday


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