STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – One of the benefits for the older Penn State players with the end of the spring shutdown is that they got to know the new incoming freshmen, something they couldn’t do with the absence of spring football and early summer workouts.

Offensive tackle Rasheed Walker was particularly impressed with wide receiver Parker Washington.

“Honestly, when we first got back in the summertime before camp, I didn’t even know who Parker was,” Walker said this week. “I just saw this new guy doing all this crazy stuff in practice, I really didn’t know who he was.

“That dude, he’s just a monster. But when I watch him catch the ball and shake a few guys, that’s just really entertaining to me because, one, I know we’re getting closer to the end zone, and that means we’re closer to getting off the field, getting a break, getting some water. So that’s how I look at it. I just love seeing him do what he does.”

The 5-foot-10, 205-pound Washington, from Sugar Land, Texas, has made a positive impact on the Nittany Lions (3-5) this season and can do even more Saturday when he and his teammates close the regular season against Illinois (2-5) at Beaver Stadium.

He has started all eight games this season, catching 35 passes for 473 yards and six touchdowns. Among freshmen playing in FBS, he is tied for second in TD catches, fifth in catches per game (4.4), and eighth in receiving yards per game (59.1).

Washington pulled down a career-high nine passes for 93 yards at Michigan, and was one of the main contributors in last week’s 39-24 win over Michigan State with four receptions for 95 yards and two touchdowns. He needs 25 yards Saturday to move into second place on the program’s freshman receiving yards list, ahead of KJ Hamler, who had 497 yards in 2018.

Head coach James Franklin said Washington has the lower body of a running back, which gives him the strength to pick up yards after the initial contact.

“When he got here, he didn’t really look like a wideout, he looked like a running back,” Franklin said. “His lower half is really built that way. Then he’s got what I would characterize as not good ball skills, I think he has elite ball skills. And he’s a smart guy, so he’s taken a very mature approach to it. We’re excited about his future.”

One interesting sidelight to Saturday’s game is that Washington’s sister, Ashton, is the director of high school relations for Illinois. Franklin said he became acquainted with his parents and his sister during the recruiting process.

“Hopefully after the game they’ll get to spend some time together,” Franklin said, “but we love Ashton, we love Mom and Dad, and obviously Parker has had a phenomenal true freshman year for us and we expect that to continue to build.”

The prediction

This has to be an impossible game for Illinois. Head coach Lovie Smith was fired last Sunday, the team is 2-5, and the Fighting Illini had to make the long trip for one final game in a pandemic. They are last in the Big Ten in passing offense, rushing defense, total defense, and red zone defense. They have played three quarterbacks, and their top receiver, Josh Imatorbhebhe, left the team this week and declared for the NFL draft.

However, Illinois has one of the nation’s best turnover differentials, plus-7, and 14 takeaways. The Nittany Lions are a minus-8 (16 turnovers, eight takeaways) although they have been better in that area after their horrendous 0-5 start. The Lions defense has been strong lately, although it took a nap in the second quarter last week that allowed Michigan State to score 21 points. The offense is now second in the Big Ten in total offense but has to be better in the red zone, where its TD percentage is .452.

The Lions should be able to finish the season strong.

Penn State 38, Illinois 17