This is a game many inside the Penn State program have had circled on their internal calendars since the summer (Noon / ESPN), and for good reason. Seemingly hours after the NCAA announced that picking season on Penn State players was open to all other programs, a team of coaches representing Illinois made their way to State College to see if they could get any Penn State players to switch Big Ten Leaders Division allegiances.
They hung out outside apartment buildings and the football building. Some players stayed inside the football building to avoid the coaches from Illinois. The effort made by the Illini coaching staff resulted in redshirt freshman offensive tackle Ryan Nowicki deciding to transfer to Illinois.
In fairness, Illinois played by the rules allowed by the NCAA. Still, many around the Big Ten did not believe attempting to poach any Penn State players in this fashion was appropriate. And you can be sure those within the Penn State program did not take kindly to the decisions made by Illinois. Early Saturday afternoon some of those hostilities will add fuel to the fire of what will be the Big Ten opener for both schools, who enter this weekend with identical 2-2 records, though they’ve reached this point via different paths.
For Penn State, an 0-2 start could have easily been a 2-0 start but a second half rally by Ohio and a special teams meltdown at Virginia resulted in a different tale. Still, the Nittany Lions have built their confidence on a weekly basis, evening their record with wins against Navy and Temple each of the past two weeks. The defense has played very well and the offense has adapted to a scaled back running game relying more on the ground and pound style of Michael Zordich and Zack Zwinak. This week that running game could open up with the return of Bill Belton and perhaps Derek Day.
One of the positive stories for Penn State has been the continuing maturing of quarterback Matt McGloin. Still without one of the strongest arms and at times one to make some questionable decisions to force a play, McGloin has largely been dependable and has avoided turning the ball over frequently. As a result, he’s become a leading passer in the Big Ten, which can also be credited to the style of play implemented by head coach Bill O’Brien. With Illinois showing vulnerability through the air (four passing touchdowns allowed last week), this should be an area Penn State attempts to key on, with Allen Robinson starting to turn some heads around the conference with his receiving production.
Illinois enters the Big Ten opener coming off a dismal performance at home last week, being run out of the stadium by Louisiana Tech.. It was the second time it looked as though Illinois did not look as though they belonged on the same field, as a road game at Arizona State resulted in a big loss as well. New head coach Tim Beckman has his work cut out for him now, because Penn State will enter this game with a more secure sense of confidence and a bit of an axe to grind after what went down in August.
But do not expect anyone form Penn State to give in to the notion that there is extra incentive for this game because of the Illini recruiting strategy in State College. Linebacker Mike Mauti was asked about that after last weekend’s game against the Owls, but he was reluctant to suggest it serves as motivation for the team entering this weekend. As far as he publicly said, competing for a Big Ten division championship and opening Big Ten play is enough to focus on right now.
But behind his public statements, you get a good sense he has it in the back of his head. Surely he is not alone inside the Penn State locker room, whether they want to admit it or not.
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