Illinois last obstacle to Penn State's Rose Bowl plans

No. 2 Penn State could clinch its first Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl with a win against Illinois Saturday.

Illinois is hoping to delay the celebration and boost its stock for a bowl bid.

It's a contest between the Nittany Lions' highly touted offense and the Illini's tough defense. Penn State (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) leads the nation in total offense with 533.5 yards per game, while Illinois (6-3, 4-2) is No. 2 in scoring defense, 11.3 points per game.

Lions' defensive lineman Brandon Noble predicts Penn State's defense may be the determining factor.

"Their defense is supposed to be good," Noble said. "Our offense will have its hands full."

Penn State is nearly a two-touchdown favorite, but knows it can't assume a victory in front of a sellout crowd with a lot on the line for the home team.

"We can't take that approach," Lions quarterback Kerry Collins said. "As soon as we do, we're going to get licked."

Noble hopes that locking up the Rose Bowl trip will keep his team focused.

"It doesn't help that we're getting toward the end of the season," he said. "Guys are tired and banged up. But the Rose Bowl is there to take if we want it bad enough."

Illinois linebacker Dana Howard, who got in trouble with coach Lou Tepper about a month ago when he boasted that the Illini would beat Ohio State, all but said the same thing about the Penn State game.

"On any given day they can be beat, and Saturday we'll prove that," said Howard, who was right about Ohio State. "I feel very confident every game and this one I really feel confident about."

Collins, who has the best quarterback rating in the country, is a big concern for Tepper.

"Without him, they would be skilled, but they wouldn't be so explosive," he said.

Penn State also has another strong offensive weapon in tailback Ki-Jana Carter, who is averaging 7.7 yards per carry.

Illinois has an athletic if often erratic quarterback in Johnny Johnson, but the running game, last in the league, was crippled by the loss of Robert Holcombe, the team's leading rusher who broke a hand.

Both Illinois and Penn State are coming off less than decisive wins.

Illinois' 21-17 victory over Minnesota last Saturday came on a controversial 2-yard carry by Ty Douthard. Replays showed the ball squirted from Douthard's hands before he reached the goal line. Minnesota's Justin Conzemius fell on the ball in the end zone, but the referee declared a touchdown, not a touchback.

Indiana scared Penn State with a late game comeback. The Nittany Lions were leading 35-14 before Hoosiers backup quarterback Chris Dittoe threw his third and fourth touchdown passes of the game with less than two minutes left.

Penn State won 35-29, but it was the most points scored against the Lions this season and their narrowest winning margin.

"It was a good lesson for us," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "You've got to win a game when you don't play well to win them all."