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September 28, 2012
CHAMPAIGN - It's football season, correct? It's hard to tell around here, where the talk of the town has been Illinois basketball and first-year coach John Groce's latest shoot-for-the-moon efforts in recruiting.
But now that Demetrius Jackson, Rivals' No. 27 overall prospect in the class of 2013, has announced he will play basketball at Notre Dame, not Illinois, Illini football coach Tim Beckman has the chance to steal back the spotlight from Groce and re-ignite hope for his program after a confounding start.
What better way to do that than by welcoming in Penn State?
Yeah, that same Penn State team that beat Illinois 10-7 last season in a snow bowl in Happy Valley. Yeah, that Penn State program that fired coaching legend Joe Paterno less than two weeks after that win over Illinois, following the allegations and subsequent imprisonment of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Yeah, that same Penn State program that received a four-year bowl ban and a $60 million fine; will be stripped of 20 total scholarships and was forced to vacate all its wins back to 1998.
Saturday will mark Penn State football's first foray onto another Big Ten campus since the Sandusky scandal broke. Yet, the top storyline is the showdown of first-year coaches Tim Beckman and Bill O'Brien. The latter took exception with the former when eight Illinois assistants, wearing orange-and-blue apparel, showed up in Happy Valley to meet with potential Penn State transfers. The Illini ultimately took in Ryan Nowicki, a redshirt freshman offensive lineman who spent two semesters at Penn State.
O'Brien downplayed any lingering bitterness, but he clearly still holds a grudge against a Big Ten "brother" who would poach talent from a fellow conference member. He said he met Beckman in Chicago at the Big Ten media days but "that's about it" for communication between the two.
"We're focused on this game," O'Brien said. "We're focused on our first Big Ten game on the road against a good Illinois team. That's what we're really focused on now, today."
Beckman obviously is sick of answering questions about the fiasco but remained unapologetic for the most part, maintaining that his staff didn't recruit on the State College campus and that he was simply recruiting and giving opportunities to players that initially reached out to him.
"I regret that it ended up being this much and is still talked about, but it did give a young man the opportunity to make his decision on what he wanted to do," Beckman said.
But the storyline lost its juiciness because both teams limp into Memorial Stadium with identical 2-2 records and those four combined wins came against Western Michigan, Charleston Southern, Temple and Navy - not exactly FBS powers.
For Illinois, this game needs no tabloid storylines. This could be the make-or-break game of the season for several reasons.
1. The schedule. If the Illini had finished 3-1 in the nonconference, they would have felt good. If they had finished 4-0, they would have felt ecstatic. But at 2-2, this team is worried and wounded. The mantra all week from the Illini is that the nonconference means nothing for the ultimate goal of "12-1-12" boldly stated on team-issued wristbands: the Big Ten Championship game. "Every game is as we say, the Lanes to Lucas," Beckman said. "You're trying to win each one of your football games and taking the steps necessary to Lucas Oil (Stadium)." But Big Ten title teams don't lose to Arizona State by 31 points and to Louisiana Tech by 28 points. The more likely goal for Illinois is a third straight bowl game. But they'll need to go 4-4 in the conference play to get there. Without a win against Penn State, a bowl looks unattainable. The Illini travel to Wisconsin next week before heading to Michigan. While the Badgers and Wolverines haven't lived up to their top-10 preseason rankings, Camp Randall and the Big House remain two of the toughest environments to play in. If Illinois loses to Penn State, it won't enter the road trip with much confidence and easily could enter its bye week with a 2-5 record before homecoming with Indiana and then a road trip to Ohio State. Without a win against Penn State, Illinois likely can say "Bye-bye, bowl."
2. Nathan Scheelhaase. Illinois' junior quarterback said he just didn't feel like himself while sitting out Arizona State and Charleston Southern because of an ankle sprain. In his return to the field against Louisiana Tech, Scheelhaase didn't look like himself. Illinois never called a running play for Scheelhaase, the Illini's leading rusher last season. When he tried to run, he was a shell of himself. He fumbled near the end of the first quarter when Louisiana Tech linebacker Rufus Porter caught him from behind. "My girlfriend told me she was watching the game and said the announcer was like, 'Yeah, they said he'd be able to run away from those linebackers on a healthy ankle,'" Scheelhaase said. "I was like, 'I hope I would,' because I like to think I'm faster than most linebackers even though they had some fast linebackers." Beckman benched Scheelhaase for the remainder of the game as a precautionary measure and played Reilly O'Toole. But Beckman stood behind Scheelhaase this week, crushing any quarterback controversy talk by stating, "Nathan Scheelhaase is our starting quarterback." Scheelhaase said he's improved this week and that his injury shouldn't limit him. Besides an interception, he helped Illinois move the ball against Louisiana Tech. Illinois needs his dynamic ability to jolt a stagnant offense. But Saturday will prove whether Scheelhaase truly is dynamic again or if the injury will continue to limit him and the Illini offense.
3. The defense. You have to give the Illini defense this, they remain confident after a beat-down. After giving up 45 points to Arizona State, Jonathan Brown and Michael Buchanan both said they believed the front seven was one of the best in the country. After giving up 52 points to Louisiana Tech, Akeem Spence said, "I feel like we're still a great defense. It's the same guys. We just got to go out and execute." Spence suggested that the defense under coordinator Tim Banks has been more conservative than the successful schemes under former UI defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. He also added that "guys are a little frustrated when they're not playing what they're used to playing," and that "some guys are worried about making a mistake." Growing pains are expected under a new regime, but Spence seems to be suggesting that the Illini defense isn't playing naturally. Maybe playing against a more pro-style, north-south Big Ten offense will help, but Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin - the Big Ten's leading passer - is no slouch and Illinois will need to make him feel uncomfortable in the pocket.. Banks must find a way within his scheme to unleash his NFL talents so they can regain their mojo from a season ago.
4. Avoiding the quicksand. Yes, I'm using a term most learned from the somewhat entertaining football flick "The Replacements." But Shane Falco/Keanu Reeves had a good point when he said "the harder you fight, the deeper you sink." Illinois football seemed to have that problem last year. A 6-0 start turned into 6-2. Then 6-4. Then 6-6. After each loss, the Illini fought harder and sunk deeper. After going through that last year, should fans be worried that a team made of mostly the same players could already have a foot in the quicksand? "We're far from hitting the panic mode, I would say," the even-keeled Scheelhaase said. "We knew starting off 4-0 in the nonconference last year didn't do us much good at the end of the season."
5. Recruiting. Beckman's staff had success on the recruiting trail long before it hit the field, landing 18 commitments before Week 1. But recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh said last week that to finish the class strong - and maintain its commitments - the team simply needs wins. No matter how great of hosts they were last week, the almost 20 recruits in town certainly didn't have a great impression during the 52-24 loss to Louisiana Tech in front of a diminishing crowd. This is another big recruiting weekend for the Illini as they are expecting to host several visitors. If Illinois wants to maintain and finish off a strong class, it needs wins against beatable teams like Penn State.
6. The fan base. Illini athletic director Mike Thomas fired Ron Zook because of a lack of Big Ten competitiveness and a lack of butts in the seats. After a 2-2 start, the Illini don't look any more competitive and the fan base seems even less enthused. Beckman already seems to have lost the benefit of the doubt from fans who haven't seen enough through four games to think the program is on the upswing. The Illini are averaging 45,116 in paid attendance. A win over Penn State could help boost ticket sales for the final three home games. A loss (and subsequent losses) could extinguish any single-game interest for the final three home games and wreak havoc on next year's season-ticket sales.
Following two blowouts to unranked opponents, Illinois fans - fresh off a disappointing 0-6 finish to the regular season last year - are hoping, "Not again."
Illinois players urge that this year still has the potential to be different.
"Last year is something I've never been a part of," O'Toole said. "You win six games, are nationally ranked and then you just kind of fall off the face of the year," O'Toole said. "This year, we're still in contention. We're 2-2 going into Big Ten. We just got to win next week. I think that'd be huge."
If they don't, then for some fans, the countdown to Illini basketball's Orange and Blue Scrimmage will begin in earnest.
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU