The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

College

September 28, 2012

For Nittany Lions, Illini, drama on field

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Penn State and Illinois camps seem to agree on one thing ahead of their Big Ten opener today: Last summer’s visit by Illinois coaches to talk to players interested in leaving Penn State doesn’t matter much now.

Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said he doesn’t think the players will be talking about “what went on in July” after that first series. And there’s no shortage of on-field drama to focus on instead.

Start with Penn State (2-2).

The NCAA sanctions that followed the child sex-abuse scandal mean Penn State can’t go to a bowl game. But the Nittany Lions can still win the Big Ten Leaders Division, a carrot that gives many of them something tangible to chase. They’ve won two straight games and appear to be getting better after the shocks, and departures, of the offseason.

“As soon as I had seen it on Twitter, I reposted it so the whole team could see it,” tight end Kyle Carter said of the division title eligibility. “And now we have something to play for.”

Then there’s Illinois.

The Big Ten season is just starting, so the Illini (2-2) are still in the divisional title hunt, too.

But Scheelhaase hasn’t been healthy since he sprained an ankle in the season opener almost four weeks ago, and has missed all but one quarter in three games since.

And year one of the Tim Beckman era became decidedly more uncomfortable last week when Louisiana Tech dismantled Illinois, 52-24, two weeks after another team that runs a spread offense, Arizona State, beat the Illini 45-14.

“There’s no question that they’ve been disappointed by the outcomes of those football games,” said Beckman, who came to Illinois from Toledo to replace Ron Zook. “I think our players understand that they’ve played together against some good offenses, but we haven’t played up to our abilities yet in those football games.”

A year ago, the Illini defense was among the best in the country and almost all the key players are back.

Defensive tackle Akeem Spence this week said that the defense Beckman and new defensive coordinator Tim Banks are running has cut down on blitzes coming from linebackers and the secondary. And a team that was among the most dangerous in the country for opposing quarterbacks has seen its sack total cut more than in half.

With Big Ten play starting, Spence said he hopes the Illini see less of the spread and can put a little more pressure on quarterbacks.

“With Penn State, we’ve seen them do a lot of play action so that gives our edge guys a chance to rush the quarterback a little more,” Spence said. “Our front seven should be able to clog that up pretty well.”

Beckman said early in the week that Scheelhaase is his starter, and Scheelhaase said his ankle felt better this week than it has any time since he injured it.

“Hopefully there’ll be nothing holding me back (today),” he said.

Penn State should have Bill Belton back, too. He opened the season as the starting running back but has been out with an ankle injury.

“Billy is a guy that has good feet, good vision, and can catch the football,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said, adding that Belton will likely share time with his replacements. “So it’s good to have him back, because he’s another type of change of pace type of running back.”

That stable of backs has been a key factor in quarterback Matt McGloin’s improvement this season. The senior has thrown the ball to 14 different receivers. He’s averaging 251 yards a game and has nine touchdowns with just two interceptions.

O’Brien believes he can get better.

“So like I told him yesterday, a lot it’s up to him, just him continuing to work and going out there and executing even better at a higher level than he is right now,” the coach said.

The last time Illinois and Penn State played was Joe Paterno’s last game as head coach, a 10-7 Nittany Lions win. Since then, Scheelhaase said, the team has improved from one looking for a post-JoePa identity in an opening loss to Ohio to winners of two in a row.

“You could tell they were just starting to try to find themselves in that first game and have definitely started to find their swagger,” he said.

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