Penn State finally got a chance to flex its rushing muscles last week at Illinois, and it served to wash away the bad taste of the Nittany Lions' error-filled loss to Iowa the previous week.
With the revamped offensive line showing signs of coming around, the Lions ground out 338 yards rushing, with both Stephfon Green (13-120) and Evan Royster (17-105) eclipsing the century mark.
Even quarterback Daryll Clark got into the act, picking up a crucial first down on a 51 yard run on a quarterback draw.
The Lions put it all together in the second half against the Fighting Illini, scoring four touchdowns to turn a tight 7-3 halftime lead into a convincing 35-17 victory at Champaign.
At 4-1 and now ranked 14th in this week's Associated Press writers' poll (12th in the USA Today Coaches Poll), PSU takes a break from Big Ten play to face Eastern Illinois, representing the Ohio Valley Conference, in a 12 noon kickoff this afternoon at Beaver Stadium. The game is scheduled to be televised by ESPN Classic.
This is the Lions' bye week in Big Ten play. Eastern Illinois is scheduled here primarily for financial considerations. The revenue from Penn State's home games funds the university's 28 other athletic programs, which makes scheduling an extra 12th game at home fiscally appealing.
Eastern Illinois is an NCAA FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) program, what used to be called Division I-AA. Penn State and other Division I programs are considered part of the Football Bowl Subdivision (or FBS).
The reason that there is a proliferation of FBS teams playing FCS schools is that the D-! schools like PSU want a 12th game to be at home, to reap the financial benefits mentioned above. It leads to a lopsided schedule; this year the Lions have eight games in Happy Valley and only four on the road.
Penn State had four non-conference games this season. They had a home and away two-year deal with Syracuse (having played at the Carrier Done last year), and Temple has an arrangement with PSU that the Owls will visit Beaver Stadium three times out of every four years. Akron and Eastern Illinois are home one-shot games, but getting another D-I/FBS school to come to Penn State for a one-shot game without the Lions reciprocating, such as Oregon State did last year, is a difficult proposition.
While the money generated from a crowd of over 100,000 is beneficial to the PSU athletic program as a whole, the Lions might benefit physically from a week off instead. Injuries are beginning to nag at the Nits.
Linebacker Sean Lee reportedly isn't supposed to play for the third straight week with a sprained knee, although he is listed as possible. Tackle Nerraw McCormack, who has helped solidify the offensive line, is also dinged with a sore ankle.
Others in the banged up category include running backs Green and Brent Carter, back-up linebacker Chris Colasanti, wide receiver Devon Smith and tackle DeOn'tae Pannell.
Defensive tackle Brandon Ware (foot), defensive back Jacob Fagnano (ankle) and fullback Josh Matzkin (foot) are listed as out for today. Linebacker Michael Mauti and defensive end Pete Massaro are done for the season with knee injuries.
"I think after you've gone as far as we've gone, and you're banged up, and we're banged up, you would like to have an open date," said PSU skipper Joe Paterno during his weekly press conference (full text is available at www.gopsusports.com).
While Eastern Illinois competes in a division lower than PSU, Paterno doesn't consider the Panthers a pushover.
Bob Spoo is in his 23nd year as head coach at Eastern Illinois, which also carries a 4-1 mark into today's game. The Panthers are ranked 25th in the latest FCS poll after suffering their first loss of the season last week to Eastern Kentucky in a 36-31 shootout.
The Panthers average 29.1 points per game and are quarterbacked by Jake Christensen, a transfer from Iowa who started 14 games for the Hawkeyes in 2007-2008. He has completed 89 of 136 passes for 1,090 yards, with 11 TDs against three interceptions. He was behind center in 2007 when PSU beat Iowa 27-7 at Beaver Stadium, the Lions' last win over the Hawkeyes.
The Panthers' top targets are running back Jimmy Potempa, who has 20 receptions, and wide receiver Kenny Whitaker (13). The big play receivers are Lorence Ricks and Chavar Watkins.
Leading the EIU ground game is Mon Williams, a Florida transfer, who has carried 77 times for 471 yards and six TDs. Chevon Walker averages 6.1 yer carry and has gained 176 yards on 29 carries.
Cory Leman, a sophomore linebacker and brother of former Illinois standout J Leman, leads the Panthers defensively with 47 tackles. Junior cornerback Rashad Haynes was an All-OVC and All-America candidate. The defensive line is anchored by Andre Lima, Trevor Frericks and Perry Burge.
Panthers' junior punter Kevin Cook was a preseason Lindy's All-American and averages 41.4 per punt. Another Iowa transfer Austin Signor, handles the placekicking chores.
The Panthers even have NFL connections. Three EIU alumni have been head coaches in the pros: Brad Childress with the Minnesota Vikings, Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints, and former Denver Broncos' boss Mike Shanahan. In addition, Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo played at EIU from 1999-2002.
It's clear that the Panthers have their own football tradition, as well as some talent.
"They are a very sound football team," said Paterno. "They don't make a lot of mistakes. I think (Christensen) is about a 65-68 percent completion kid. I think he's averaging a couple hundred yards a ballgame, and they've been in some close ballgames.
"He doesn't make a lot of dumb mistakes, or does their team. They don't get a lot of stupid penalties and they don't put the ball on the ground very much, so you have to beat them. They're not going to beat themselves."
The Lions are holding pretty close to the party line that they aren't taking the Panthers lightly.
"I go in like every other game," said PSU linebacker Nate Stupar. "Anything can happen. Like the Michigan game (when the Wolverines lost to Appachalian State in 2007), anybody can beat anyone. That's what's great about college football."
NITTANY NOTES - Despite Paterno's explanation about why the Lions are facing EIU, that didn't stop one reporter from grilling him on the matter, evern asking if fans should pay the same price for this game as Ohio State or Iowa ... PSU Punter Jeremy Boone was selected as Big Ten Specialist of the Week after averaging 49.5 yards oer attempt at Illinois last week. He leads the Big Ten in punting with a 48.8 average ... the PSU defense has yet to allow a TD in the first half this season and has given up just five TDs all season. Linebacker Josh Hull collected double figure tackles for the fourth straight game with 11 against the Illini. Hull leads the team with 52 stops, followed by the sidelined Lee (32) and safety Drew Astorino (25) ... EIU coach Spoo is a Purdue graduate and former Boilermakers QB ... Since the start of 2005, PSU is now 10-1 in games following losses. If the season-opening win vs. Akron is included, it becomes 11-1 ... PSU returns to Beaver Stadium and Big Ten play next Saturday with Minnesota in a 3:30 p.m. start.