The Big Ten portion of Penn State's schedule is here and the Nittany Lions are heading into Big Ten play with a very manageable record of 2-2. There have been some bumps in the road along the way so far for Bill O'Brien and his squad, but the Nittany Lions seem to be playing pretty decent football heading into their week five match-up with Illinois (12:01 p.m. ET ESPN).
Many PSU fans will never forget when NCAA President Mark Emmert opened up the Penn State football roster to all of Division 1, allowing coaches to recruit PSU players as if they were still in high school.
A program that took full advantage of that stipulation in the sanctions handed down to Penn State was the Fighting Illini. It was reported by numerous media outlets that Illinois was on PSU's campus right after the sanctions were handed down and they were trying to convince some PSU football players to come play in Champagne.
Most if not all Penn State faithful were not too happy about Illinois' presence on the PSU campus, so a question that is lingering out there now is how the Nittany Lions feel about Illinois presence on campus a few months ago? Obviously, with the two schools squaring off this afternoon, what does that mean for today's game and is there any bad blood between the two?
Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien does not believe that his players focus on the game will be affected at all by Illinois recruitment of PSU players in the summer.
"We started out yesterday and had a really good team meeting reviewing the Temple game; said O'Brien. "I believe as we sit here today we have got their attention on a very good Illinois team and tough game coming in Champagne."
Another question on the minds of many Penn State fans is when is Bill Belton going to return to the Penn State line-up? The Nittany Lions run game has been struggling so far this season and without Belton, O'Brien has limited options with Mike Zordich, who is a fullback, Derek Day, Curtis Dukes, and Zach Zwinak.
The Nittany Lions are averaging a meager 124 yards per game on the ground. Running room won't come easy this afternoon either as Illinois is giving up just 100 yards rushing per contest.
"Bill (Belton) practiced yesterday and looked decent," said O'Brien. "We anticipate him to be ready to go for the game. All the kids bring a little bit of a different skill set to the table, whether it's Zordich, Zwinak, Dukes, Belton and then obviously Derek Day. Some guys are first and second down guys; some are three down guys; some are a little bit quicker; some guys are bigger; some guys are faster; some guys catch the ball better. So Billy is a guy that has good feet, good vision, and can catch the football. So it's good to have him back because he's another change-of-pace type of running back."
With Belton back the Penn State passing attack should be able to have even more success. So far in 2012 PSU has been averaging a little over 254 yards per game through the air. Quarterback Matt McGloin has nine touchdown and just two interceptions and sophomore wideout Allen Robinson is leading the BIG 10 with 29 catches for 404 yards and five touchdowns. It's obvious O'Brien's expertise in the passing game is boding well for the Nittany Lions.
"Every week Matt (McGloin) has improved on what he sees and getting us into the right play, using little tricks of the trade to help himself to get us into the right play," said O'Brien. "We showed him tape yesterday and he knows that he can continue to improve a lot and play a lot better than he right now. I told him, a lot is up to him, just continuing to work and going out there and executing even better at a higher level than he is right now."
Penn State's game against Illinois this afternoon could very well come down to a battle within the trenches. The Fighting Illini defensive front is tough and is one of the best in the BIG 10, so the Nittany Lion offensive line must have a good game and protect McGloin, who isn't the best at handling pressure in the pocket.
"The Illinois defensive line is a big strength of their football team," said O'Brien. "They have two defensive ends and two defensive tackle that play extremely hard. Actually, we were sitting there watching tape of these guys and it reminded us a lot of what we go up against in practice. Our defensive line is really well coached and very, very good. It'll be fun for fans to watch two really; really good defensive lines go at it on Saturday."
Defensively, Penn State has to just keep playing solid football. The Illini boast two good quarterbacks in passing threat Riley O'Toole (514 yards 6TD) and dual threat Nate Scheelhaase (211 2TD). Scheelhaase's ability to run with the football can hurt the Nittany Lions, so constant pressure on him is a must this afternoon.
Josh Ferguson and Donovan Young are the two main options for Illinois at running back. The two have combined for 325 yards and two touchdowns this season.
Plain and simple if the Penn State defense plays good, solid, disciplined football then there's no reason why they shouldn't come out of Champagne with a "W".
With news from the NCAA that Penn State is eligible to win the Leaders Division it does give the Nittany Lions something to shoot for. A win at Illinois would be a nice first step in the right direction towards that goal.
"What we try to do is really just focus on the game for that week," said O'Brien. So we try to break it down into 12 one-game seasons. We've played four; now we're focused on the fifth game, the Illinois game, and we don't think about anything down the road. We just know we have eight more opportunities left to play, and we're going to practice extremely hard and prepare for a very difficult Illinois team."