Our beat writer picks out three players from Illinois and Penn State to keep an eye on Saturday in Happy Valley.
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE, QB
If you think it has been a long time since Scheelhaase threw a touchdown, you’re right. Scheelhaase did not throw one in October. He had one taken away against Michigan State because of a holding call and nearly had one against Nebraska on a throw in the corner to tight end Matt LaCosse, but LaCosse was out of bounds.
But the sight of LaCosse running from Miami (Ohio) defenders en route to a 45-yard touchdown catch from Scheelhaase seems like eons ago. Penn State’s defense is not stingy like Michigan State and Wisconsin. Scheelhaase will have plays in which he can exploit the Nittany Lions for substantial gains. If he’s able to achieve that, the Illini might leave Beaver Stadium with their second win at the venue, and both would come with Scheelhaase at quarterback.
“We’re not looking at any big scope of what this can do for the program or what this can do for years down the road,” Scheelhaase said. “We’re looking at it as what it can do for our week, and it would be capping off a big week for us. Moving forward, it would be huge to get a big road win like this.”
JOSH FERGUSON, RB
The scatback has played these last two games for Illinois. He just hasn’t had the same effect on the defenses of Michigan State and Wisconsin like he did to opponents earlier this season. He is capable of having a big game (i.e., Nebraska) against Big Ten competition. The Nittany Lions are vulnerable to multi-faceted running backs (i.e., Tevin Coleman of Indiana). Perhaps Ferguson gets back on track in his first game at Beaver Stadium.
“There’s a lot of film out there, so opposing guys are going to look at ‘Who can hurt us? Well, that guy can hurt us,’ ” Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “The (opposing) defensive (coordinators), unfortunately, get paid, too, and there’s some scholarship guys on the other side, too, that understand, ‘Hey, watch 6. This is what he can do.’ You’ve got to keep on creating more opportunities for him out of different things. We motioned him out of the backfield and had him on a little angle route (against Michigan State) where we got the ball down to the 1-yard line because he’s the best guy down there.”
TEKO POWELL, DT
With the team flight set to arrive back in Champaign on Saturday evening, the Miami native likely will have time to check out how the Hurricanes fare against Florida State in this weekend’s marquee matchup. He’ll have a much happier time watching that game if he plays well earlier Saturday. If he can keep progressing after a stellar showing against Michigan State in his first start of the season — and first significant action after missing four weeks with a foot injury — that should bode well for a defensive line searching for an identity. Powell had five tackles against the Spartans, including one for loss, by far his most productive game in an Illinois uniform.
“For his first game and the number of reps that he played, he can play better,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “I’m happy with some of the things he did in there. He held his ground in there, and he’ll just get better and better and better.”
The learning curve on Powell is still steep, but the natural ability is evident.
“At times he had some bright spots and he had some mistakes,” linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “It was his first game back, so that was expected. He just has to continue to develop.”
ALLEN ROBINSON, WR
He’s big. He’s fast. He’s physical. He’s the best wide receiver in the Big Ten, and if he decides to forgo his senior season, he could be a rich man at this time next year.
Penn State hasn’t exactly had a stable of game-breaking wide receivers come through its program. Robinson fits that mold. How Illinois handles coverage against the wideout will go a long way in determining if the Illini have a happy flight back to Champaign on Saturday night.
“He’s very athletic and can go up and get the ball,” Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “He’s just a playmaker. They do a lot of different things putting him in the slot, putting him on the edge, just finding different ways to get him the ball. He’s definitely one of the most talented receivers we’ve seen.”
CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG, QB
Matt McGloin showcased what Bill O’Brien wants out of his quarterbacks last year. Hackenberg (1,784 yards, 12 touchdowns, eight interceptions) has an outside chance to eclipse the single-season school passing yards (3,271) that McGloin put up in 2012. Even if he doesn’t do that this year, the true freshman still could leave Happy Valley as one of the most prolific passers in school history.
“For a freshman, he’s got a very, very strong arm,” Beckman said. “I think he’s got great intelligence for a freshman. You can see why he’s earned that opportunity to be a starting quarterback at Penn State as a freshman.”
Banks coached at Cincinnati against Louisville in 2011 when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was a freshman. Banks sees similar traits in Hackenberg as a freshman that he saw in Bridgewater two years ago.
“If you told me he’s a junior or senior, I’d be like, ‘OK,’ ” Banks said. “He’s the real deal. He can throw it from one hash to the other, and he’s very calm under pressure. He gets the ball off extremely quick. He has such great poise where he sits back, restarts his feet, steps up, sidesteps and then throws darts.”
JORDAN LUCAS, CB
The sophomore saw spot duty last season as a true freshman. The same isn’t true this fall. The Nittany Lions have relied on Lucas to contribute significantly in 2013. So far he has. Lucas is third on the team in tackles at 39 and has an interception. Quarterbacks are testing him frequently, and he is leading the team in pass breakups (seven) and pass deflections (eight). With the pass-first approach Illinois has employed this season, Lucas is bound to get more opportunities to cause havoc defensively.
“I’ve studied them on defense in two football games, and what I’ve seen from him is a man that’s made a lot of plays,” Beckman said. “Schematicwise, he’s the guy they put on that island to make those plays, and he’s the one that’s come up with them.”