Asmussen | Suspended Illini due to return

Asmussen | Suspended Illini due to return

Lovie Smith didn't say it Monday. But his team is about to get an infusion of talent.

Five suspended players — including three 2017 starters — are expected back for Penn State.

Maybe the most critical additions will be on the defensive side, where safety Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs are on the way.

The sophomores were missed in the nonconference, especially against pass happy South Florida. Put Hobbs and Williams on the field against Blake Barnett and it might have been a different game. I doubt the Bulls would have thrown the game-winner in the final minutes. Or piled up so many yards (411).

Plus, Williams has the nose for the ball, so maybe Illinois would have added another interception or two.

Their teammates want them playing again. The sooner the better.

"We're patiently waiting to get those guys back," senior linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips said. "Playmakers. As soon as they come back, I'll be glad having those guys flying around on the field, being with us."

The positive side to having the players out: It forced other players onto the field. The best of the bunch has been Quan Martin, who has two interceptions and 13 tackles. Sydney Brown has helped too, And others.

"Those guys got a little bit of experience under their belt," Phillips said. "When those guys(Hobbs and Williams) do come back, if they go down, we're confident in the next guy because they've got that experience."

The other side

It's not just the defense getting a boost from the timed-out suspensions. On offense, the Illini can't way to see tight end Lou Dorsey (on the Mackey watch list) and receiver Carmoni Green.

"They'll make us better if Coach (Lovie Smith) is ready to let them go," first-year offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "They'll give us some speed and athleticism that we desperately need, I think, in the receiving corps. Also experience. You've got guys who played last year."

Receiver has been hit hard by injuries this season, with Mikey Dudek and Edwin Carter lost for the year.

Tough blows eased by the return of Green and Dorsey.

Kind of like an NFL team adding a great player in a trade or waiver pickup during the season.

"We've been snake bit a little bit at wideout with injuries." Rod Smith said. "When those guys do get back, it will be nice to have them into the fold. Hopefully we can get them contributing moving forward."

Dorsey and Green create matchup problems for opposing defenses. Rod Smith is eager to use them in a game. He's been working with them throughout training camp.

"You've got two talented kids who can run and do some things hopefully —

particularly if teams start trying to play man coverages," Rod Smith said. "We'e gotten some man coverage the last several weeks. Hopefully we can take advantage of some of those one-on-one situations and have an athletic or speed advantage or at least something comparable."

Golden opportunity

The return of the five players doesn't guarantee a win for Illinois against Penn State. But it definitely improves its chances.

The Nittany Lions have been mostly good this season and enter as a 28-point favorite. That's a lot.

Lovie Smith has been looking for a signature victory. One he can brag about to recruits and fans. One that will help fill Memorial Stadium when the team returns home against Purdue on Oct. 13.

Appalachian State provided a blueprint how to scare Penn State. The Mountaineers couldn't close the deal.

Illinois gained respect nationally in a close loss to South Florida. Think what a home win against the nation's No. 10 team will mean.

There are three nationally televised games Friday and Illinois-Penn State is the best of the bunch. All those great teams across the country will be tuning in to watch.

Illinois has a chance to make an impression.

Every great Illinois run in the past 20 years started with an unexpected victory. Ron Turner's 1999 team rallied for a stunning win at No. 9 Michigan. Lloyd Carr is still wondering how he let a three-touchdown lead get away.

The 2001 Big Ten champions won at No 25 Louisville.

The 208 Rose Bowl team shocked No. 21 Penn State and No. 5 Wisconsin in consecutive home games.

It can happen again. Five guys just might make the difference.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.