The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local Sports

November 1, 2013

Lions try to move on against Illini

STATE COLLEGE — Penn State is ready to move on from one of the worst losses in program history.

The Nittany Lions, of course, have little choice.

It’s time for the next game on the schedule, and that means they have to prepare for Illinois (3-4, 0-3 Big Ten) today. Ohio State’s 63-14 win over the Nittany Lions (4-3, 1-2) was a setback for a team coming off an emotional four-overtime win against undefeated Michigan. Much like the Nittany Lions couldn’t build off that victory, they can only hope their epic defeat doesn’t linger into today at Beaver Stadium.

“We talk to our guys all the time about 12 one-game seasons,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “So we try to separate it that way. We go week to week, and we try to make sure that the kids understand, OK, on Monday, when they come in, let’s review some of the tape from the previous Saturday’s game, but also, boom, that game is over as soon as we’re done, and we focus on the task at hand.”

The Illini certainly understand the pressures that come with trying rebound from a big loss. Michigan State rolled to a 42-3 win last week and Illinois has lost all three Big Ten games by at least 20 points.

O’Brien has a knack for getting the Nittany Lions to understand the big picture – they haven’t lost two straight games since an 0-2 start last season.

With both teams needing a confidence boost for the final weeks of the Big Ten season, here are five things to look for when they face off for the 21st time.   

Rough week for Scheelhaase: If Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s week wasn’t bad enough after the 39-point loss to Michigan State – in which the Illini managed just 128 yards – it certainly got worse. Scheelhaase’s father, Nathan Creer, was arrested during the game over what police said was a fight in Memorial Stadium. University police then banned the former Iowa Hawkeye defensive back from campus for a year.

Scheelhaase didn’t say much about the incident, but the fifth-year senior sounded relieved to have another football game ahead to think about.

“You know there’s going to be different distractions throughout your career,” he said, “and the best thing I have is a bunch of people in here who are focused on this next game, focused on what we need to do every day.”

Bowl game hopes? Not much about Illinois’ loss to the Spartans suggested the Illini are a bowl team, but players and coaches said this week that getting to a bowl remains a realistic goal.

“We’ve got five games left in the Big Ten season. And all of those are winnable games,” senior linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “There’s definitely still potential for a bowl game.”

Illinois’ last bowl appearance was in 2011, a 20-14 win in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl that put a winning finish on what had been a bizarre season. Both teams’ coaches – Ron Zook at Illinois and the Bruins’ Rick Neuheisel – had just been fired, Zook after his team opened 6-0 but then lost six straight.

Belton hits: Penn State running back Bill Belton was about the only positive on offense against Ohio State, rushing for 98 yards and starting to separate himself a bit out of the backfield. Zach Zwinak’s fumbling woes have opened the door for more carries for Belton and, so far, the former wide receiver has made the most of his added playing time. He led the charge in the fourth overtime against Michigan and scored the winning touchdown.

“He’s a much-improved player, he really is,” O’Brien said. “He’s more patient in the running game. I think he understands how to watch film better. I think he’s a better teammate. I think he’s a smarter player.” Belton leads the Nittany Lions with 467 yards rushing on 92 carries (5.1), and has three touchdowns.”

Look out: Belton might want to avoid Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown. He leads the Big Ten with 76 tackles and ranks 10th in the nation at 10.9 tackles per game. He is trying to become the first Illini player to lead the conference in tackles since Brit Miller in 2008. He was a member of preseason watch lists for the Butkus Award, Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy.

Steel curtain: O’Brien has a fondness for Pittsburgh area recruits. Mike Hull, Miles Dieffenbach, Adam Gress, Jesse Della Valle all come with a certain kind of toughness that the second-year coach likes out of his players. “I just really like that city, and I like the guys on our team that come from that city,” he said. “And I think those guys are very tough guys that love playing for Penn State.”

Great. But what about another city on the other side of the state? “I don’t want to imply that Philadelphia guys aren’t” tough, he said.


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