Penn State knew it wasn't in for a joy ride on the road this season.
With three Top 25 teams scheduled away from Beaver Stadium, including defending national champion Alabama and Big Ten contenders Ohio State and Iowa, the Nittany Lions were facing a slate that would test most veteran squads.
The reality is that the Lions, with one of Joe Paterno's younger squads, has undergone growing pains the hard way and are 3-2, dropping road tilts to the Crimson Tide and Hawkeyes by identical 24-3 scores. Just seven seniors started vs. Iowa.
A big reason for PSU's struggles has been its lackluster offense, which is ranked dead last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (19.2 points per game) and 10th in total offense (355.2 per game). Those numbers rank tied for 100th and 75th among Division I schools.
With a true freshman at quarterback in Rob Bolden, the Lions' attack could help itself if it could generate a rushing attack, but that has been what has lagged. The Lions are averaging just 138.2 yards on the ground per game, which is 10th in the Big Ten and 75th nationally. Those are hardly PSU-like numbers.
Of course, the offensive statistics are skewed somewhat due to the Lions' facing two top-notch defensive units in Alabama and Iowa. Last week, the Hawkeyes limited the Lions to just 54 nets yards rushing. Evan Royster, who had a career high of 178 yards against Temple the previous week, managed just 56 yards on 10 carries, although he did move into fourth place on the all-time PSU career rushing list.
Even more problematic for the Lions is the rash of injuries the squad has incurred. Losing tackle Lou Eliades to a knee injury prior to the Iowa game didn't help against the Hawkeyes' ferocious defensive front, and now redshirt freshman tight end Garry Gilliam has also suffered a season-ending knee injury, leaving PSU with true freshman Kevin Haplea, at that spot.
Bolden has done what he could, completing 20 of 37 for 212 yards against Iowa, but his one interception was returned for a TD.
As in the Alabama game, the Lions moved the ball at times against Iowa (they ended with 301 yards to Iowa's 349), but they came up empty in the red zone. The Lions to settled for a field goal at the end of the first half, and a second half drive to the Iowa goal line, Bolden was stopped inches short of the TD on fourth down.
The last time the Lions failed to score a TD twice in a season was in 2006, when the lost to Wisconsin 13-3 and Ohio State 24-6.
The defense did keep the Hawkeyes off the scoreboard in the second half and registered nine tackles for losses. Cornerback D'Anton Lynn had nine tackles and junior safety Nick Sukay grabbed his third interception in two games, but Ricky Stanzi and company had done all the damage they needed on the scoreboard in the first half, leading 17-3.
The loss to Iowa has knocked PSU out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2007, ending a streak of 38 consecutive polls in which the Lions had been ranked. The Lions weren't alone in that fate last week, as two other national powers, Southern Cal and Texas, took a tumble out after losses.
The Lions will attempt to get back on track today against Illinois. It's Homecoming in Happy Valley, with a 12 noon kickoff. The game will be televised nationally by ESPN2.
The Fighting Illini carry a record of 2-2 into action this afternoon, doing well against intrastate schools Northern Illinois (28-22) and Southern Illinois (35-3) and not so well outside the state, falling to Missouri (23-13) and Ohio State (24-13).
Both teams sit at 0-1 in the Big Ten after dropping their openers last week, but Illinois coach Ron Zook has apparently suggested this a must game for the Illini.
There's a sense of urgency on the part of the Illini, who haven't fared well against PSU; the Lions are 14-3 all-time against Illinois, including 11-2 since joining the Big Ten in 1993. PSU is 6-0 vs. the Illini at Beaver Stadium.
Paterno avoided labeling this game with the "must" tag at his press conference this week, but a win would give the Lions a boost heading into their bye week.
"Obviously, we're in a situation where we need to go out and play well," said Paterno (www.gopsusports.com). "Winning is certainly very, very high on our priorities, but I don't think it's a 'must' game in the sense that we need to win it or else.
"I think we're still in the developing stage. I still think we have a ways to go to become the kind of football team I think eventually we're going to become, and I would hope we would play better than we played (against Iowa), and go from there."
Zook is in his sixth season at Illinois after coaching at Florida and has a 23-41 mark with the Illini, including 1-4 vs. PSU. The Illini's last win against the Lions came in 2007, 27-20.
Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase is at QB for the Illini and has completed 54.4 percent of his passes (43 of 79) for 489 yards, with 3 TDs and 4 interceptions. He has also rushed for 216 yards, second to junior RB Mikel Leshoure, who has 478 yards and 3 Tds.
The Illini receiving corps includes senior Jarred Fayson and junior A.J. Jenkins.
Defensively, junior linebacker Martez Wilson leads the team with 34 tackles. The secondary has been tough and features Travon Bellamy, Trulon Henry and Tavon Wilson. The anchor of the defensive front is junior tackle Corey Liuget.
Illinois has allowed its opponents just 3.9 yards per carry and only 3 rushing TDs, so it will be another test for the Lions to establish a ground attack. Last year the Lions gouged the Illini for 338 yards rushing.
Punter Anthony Santella averages a Big Ten best 48.7 yards per kick, with six punts inside the 20, which could mean some long fields for PSU.
The Illinois played well against Ohio State before falling, and that wasn't lost on Paterno.
"I think they're doing a good job coaching and getting better," he noted. "I hope we're getting better. It's a big game for both sides. It's Homecoming for us, and it's the second game in the Big Ten for us."
NITTANY LINES - The Lions are number one in the country in one area: fewest penalties (15, 3 per game) and fewest penatly yards per game (18) ... Paterno said the official didn't grant him a time out request at the end of the first half after the Lions had moved into to the Iowa 2 on Brett Brackett's catch. Bolden's spike took three seconds off the clock and PSU took the field goal ... PSU is 65-20-5 all-time in Homecoming games ... a players-only meeting was reportedly held Monday, with one topic being the Lions' slow starts the last 3 games ... regarding the injury report, wide receiver Curtis Drake (leg), linebacker Gerald Hodges (leg) and tight ends Andrew Szczerba (back) and Gilliam (knee) are listed as out for the Illini. Eliades and Gilliam are done for the season. Paterno said Drake is close to coming back and hasn't been considered for a red-shirt yet. Hodges could be back in a week or two. Running back Brandon Beachum (knee) is listed as doubtful and defensive tackle Jordan Hill (ankle) is possible ... some other Lions, such as LBs Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu, have been playing with bumps and bruises ... Paterno now needs three wins to reach 400. PSU has a grand total of 814 victories ... add Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti to the list of Top 50 Big Ten icons on the series currently airing on Tuesday evenings at 9 p.m. Cappelletti is number 16 and his segment will air next week. He joins Jack Ham (22), Curt Warner (42) and LaVar Arrington (46) among PSU gridders on the list. Lady Lions volleyball player Megan Hodge was number 49 ... Sue Paterno and her more than 20 years of work with Special Olympics Pennsylvania will be recognized during the Give Big segment on Big Ten Tailgate, which airs this weekend on the Big Ten Network. Big Ten Tailgate is originating from the Penn State campus this weekend. It debuted Friday night and will re-air today at 12:30, 5:00 and 9:00 a.m.