Penn State begins the second half of its 2021 season Saturday with one overriding question:

Will Sean Clifford play?

The Nittany Lions’ fifth-year senior quarterback took a hard shot from Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell two weeks ago and left the game for good early in the second quarter. The prevailing thought among Nittany Nation was a group prayer that Clifford would be back in time for the top-10 showdown Oct. 30 at Ohio State.

However, combing through each and every sentence of James Franklin’s availability on Wednesday night, it was evident that the head coach had not written off Clifford entirely for Saturday’s Homecoming contest.

“We’ll see,” Franklin said. “I don’t know at this stage, but we’ll see where he’s at by Saturday. Hopefully, obviously, we’ll have an idea before that.”

Since Illinois is nowhere close to Ohio State when it comes to an opponent’s degree of difficulty, Franklin could allow Clifford to sit out one more week to be ready for Ohio State. The Fighting Illini are last in the Big Ten in scoring, pass offense, total defense and defensive third-down efficiency. In their last game, a 24-0 home loss to Wisconsin on Oct. 9, they were outgained 491-93 and made only nine first downs.

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If Clifford cannot play Saturday, redshirt sophomore Ta’Quan Roberson likely will get another chance behind center after a shaky performance at Iowa: 7-of-21 passing for 34 yards, two interceptions, and just one field goal scored in 11 possessions.

What to expect

  • Defense steps forward. With Penn State stuck in poor field position for much of Roberson’s time in the lineup, the defense was asked time and again to stop the Hawkeyes’ offense but ran out of gas. Expect the unit to step up the intensity after a week off in honor of one of its leaders, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, who is lost for the season with an apparent knee injury suffered at Iowa. The Lions have been outstanding in the red zone, allowing only six touchdowns in 19 trips by the opponent, and ranking fourth in the nation in fewest points allowed, giving up 13.8 per game.

  • Looking for No. 1. The Nittany Lions are looking for someone — anyone — who can rise to the status of No. 1 running back after a spate of injuries. They lost John Lovett and Devyn Ford against Iowa, and Noah Cain remains at less than 100% since the Auburn game where Franklin said he got “dinged.” The status of all three backs for Saturday is not known. That leaves sophomore Keyvone Lee, who leads the team with 204 yards on the ground, and another sophomore, Caziah Holmes, who has carried just twice for 12 yards.

The other guys

  • Don’t sleep on the defense. Talk about bend but don’t break. The Fighting Illini have allowed 427.9 total yards per game, 101st in FBS, but only 24.6 points (65th). They have held their last four opponents to 24 points or less, which would be good if the offense wasn’t so inept, averaging 12.5 points during that same stretch. Illinois has more takeaways (13) and more sacks (15) than Penn State (10 takeaways, 11 sacks), and its plus-8 turnover margin is ninth in the nation. Senior linebacker Owen Carney, who reportedly got an offer from Penn State during his time in the NCAA transfer portal last offseason before returning to the Illini, has 4½ sacks in his last four games.

  • Sticking to the ground. Illinois is last in the Big Ten in scoring (17.7 points per game) and next-to-last in total offense (318.4 yards per game) but does have a good running attack behind sophomore Chase Brown (414 yards, 6.9 yards per carry) and freshman Josh McCray (334 , 5.3). Two transfers, Artur Sitkowski (Rutgers) and Brandon Peters (Michigan) have split time at quarterback, but Peters was knocked out of the Wisconsin game and his status is questionable. Sitkowski has passed for 666 yards and six touchdowns. Isaiah Williams, who rushed for 102 yards last year against Penn State as a quarterback, is now a wide receiver and leads his team with 32 catches for 298 yards.

Keys to the game

  • Who’s on first? With Clifford’s status likely not to be known until just before kickoff, it’s difficult to suggest what might happen. Roberson and fellow backup Christian Veilleux, a true freshman, split first-team reps during the bye week, then lost a few of those when Clifford returned to practice this week. One must figure that offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich would simplify the attack a bit for Roberson or Veilleux and play to their strengths. And if the starter isn’t Clifford, ball security with either quarterback must be the top priority.

  • Special-teams duel. The special-teams units for both sides will influence the game. The Lions’ one-man gang, Jordan Stout, is third in the nation in net punting (45.97 yards), has converted eight of 11 field-goal attempts, and has not allowed a single return yard on 35 kickoffs, 33 of which have been boomed into or over the end zone for touchbacks. For Illinois, Blake Hayes has a net punting average of 44.1 yards (eighth in FBS) and James McCourt is 8-for-12 on field goals, with two of his makes coming from 50-plus yards in the same game.

Prediction

Penn State 24, Illinois 10

Illinois at No. 7 Penn State

Saturday at noon, Beaver Stadium, State College

  • TV/Radio: 6ABC; WCAU-AM (1210)

  • Line: Penn State by 23.

  • Records: Illinois, 2-5, 1-3 Big Ten; Penn State, 5-1, 2-1.

  • Coaches: Illinois, Bret Bielema (first season; career record 99-63 in 13 seasons at Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Illinois). Penn State, James Franklin (eighth season, 65-29).

  • Series: Penn State leads, 20-5. The Nittany Lions defeated the Fighting Illini, 56-21, last season at Beaver Stadium.