Illini Seek To Break Losing Streak At PSU

The Fighting Illini travel to Happy Valley to take on Penn State Saturday. This will be their first true road game of the season, and they are facing a Nittany Lion crowd expected to number 109,000. The Illini have never won there in six tries. So even though PSU has struggled out of the gate, they are still a formidable foe at home. Both UI and PSU need this win.

Penn State's offense has been inconsistent as they work true freshman Rob Bolden into the quarterback role. But make no mistake, Bolden is talented. Illinois quarterback coach Jeff Brohm has spent his time looking at PSU defensive tendencies this week, but he knows Bolden has talent.

"He is a great athlete, has a great arm and a lot of potential."

Head coach Ron Zook expands on Bolden's ability.

"He's very, very impressive. He's a young guy that gets better and better. You watch him and he's ready to play. I think they're doing some things in terms of him on the corner and getting him out of pocket. I don't know that his first thing is to run, but he can run. He's an athletic guy, and I think he's throwing the ball pretty well."

Martez Wilson believes Bolden is susceptible to Illini defensive tactics due to his inexperience.

"A freshman has to learn a lot. Being a freshman, we'll try to confuse him. Give him different looks, move around, not letting him know where the blitz is coming from if we're blitzing. If we're not blitzing, make him think we are. Freshmen have so many things in their heads. If we can get in his head, we have a big advantage."

Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning would like to do a lot of things to create confusion, but with all the injuries he must spend time each week working on personal improvement.

"We have to do what we do right now. There's a couple things that we'll pull out, but we have to be mindful not to make mistakes. The two things that hurt you are missed assignments and missed tackles. We've still got an awful lot of inexperienced young players, particularly in the secondary."

Of course, Bolden's first responsibility will be to manage the offense and get the ball into the hands of his talented running backs. Koenning has his players focused on Evan Royster in particular.

"He looks like he's a pretty stout young man. He's got good quicks. He has a good feel for where the gap is, which is one of those things you can't really coach."

Zook agrees, although he knows PSU has a number of talented backs.

"No question he's the best running back we've seen up to this point. While you better know when he's in there, they play a lot of running backs as well. They've got a stable full of them. They keep them fresh, a lot like we're trying to do."

The Penn State defense is stout, as always. Their front seven is especially formidable.

"They're defense is very solid," Zook confirms. "Their defensive front is very, very athletic, very sound. (They run) a little bit more three-deep (coverage). I think they'll blitz a little bit more on first downs, particularly in what we call 21 personnel. They're very sound."

Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has great respect for the Nittany Lion defense.

"They're a 4-3 defense and play a lot of cover 2 and cover 3. They do the same thing they've been doing for a lot of years. They're good up front, they have good defensive linemen. They're well coached and play hard. We've just got to go there, do a good job and execute."

Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will have his work cut out for him. Penn State has used the same defense for as long as Joe Paterno has coached there. They are intelligent and know how to prevent the big play.

"We're playing a defense that's really sound, real similar to Ohio State in the fact they're always in the right place. They do things right. When you've got opportunities to make plays on them, you've got to capitalize. We look forward to the challenge of playing their defense."

As with every other opponent so far, PSU will undoubtedly load the box to stuff Illini running efforts. In previous games, Scheelhaase has been inconsistent in the passing game. Receiver A.J. Jenkins knows what must be done to keep defenses honest.

"We've got to attack them deep and across the middle."

Of course, PSU is 2nd ranked in the Big 10 in pass defense, in part due to its outstanding rush and also by having experienced defensive backs playing proper roles. If the Illini can mix run and pass, they have a chance. But it remains to be seen whether they have advanced enough to threaten the Nittany Lions with a passing game.

How well the Illini play on the road will be another big factor. Two years ago, a Penn State "White-Out" crowd intimidated the Illini. Wilson was there and has forewarned teammates.

"A lot of us have been there before. The guys that haven't been there before, I tell them just prepare like it's another game. You can't pay attention to the crowd. You can't let them get into our heads.

"It affects the offense more than the defense because the offense is when the crowd really gets loud. It's just like we want our crowd to get loud when they're on offense so they can't hear their check-downs."

Scheelhaase is excited about the challenge.

"I'm looking forward to this game. All our guys talk about this stadium in particular, just from the game we had two years ago and how crazy it was there. With their Homecoming, it should be another crazy atmosphere. Any time you get a chance to play in front of that many people from a stadium with that type of tradition, you've got to look forward to that opportunity."

Safety Trulon Henry thinks he has already experienced worse than what he will face in Happy Valley.

"I know about the crowd and the atmosphere, but I don't think it will be any worse than Rantoul. That was a mental beat-down. Being there, I think we can play anywhere."

Scheelhaase knows the Illini could have done better last week against Ohio State. It makes the team hungrier for this game.

"Oh yeah. It definitely leaves that bad taste in your mouth. It's similar to the game against Missouri. It felt like there were some plays we could have capitalized on better, and it leaves you ready to go out there that next game.

"We're gonna play a great team in Penn State at their stadium. It's our first real away game. Anybody who loves football loves a challenge like that, loves when they get knocked down and get backed into a corner to see how you respond. I wouldn't expect anything less than us coming out fighting."

Petrino is looking forward to matching wits with a Paterno team.

"Anytime you go against Coach Paterno, that's a pretty neat thing as a football coach. It's a pretty nice stadium. Anytime you go against people like that, it's something special. It's exciting to go there, play your best and get a win."

Koenning hasn't been to Happy Valley before. But getting a chance to coach against a legend is a special opportunity.

"Coach Paterno is a legend. You always want a chance to spend time with those types of people. We'll be out there trying to beat his tail, and he'll be the first one trying to do that back."

Henry realizes this game is a chance for the Illini to prove themselves and gain national recognition.

"It's a golden opportunity. It's something to smile at rather than being nervous or whatever. We've got a great chance to go in and play in front of a lot of people. Even if they're booing you, it doesn't matter."

Wilson has heard the talk about PSU being "Linebacker U." He is unwilling to play second fiddle to anyone.

"I honestly feel like we have top linebackers, and we will be able to display our type of talent and athleticism come Saturday. We're definitely "Linebacker U." Start with J Leman. He led the Big 10 in tackles. It was just something that was built on in the past. I'll just say our linebacker corps is great as well. Don't sleep on us."

Zook knows it will be a tough challenge. But he also knows the rewards for winning justify the effort needed to play the game.

"Another good challenge this week. To me it is exciting, the fact we are going somewhere we have never won before. All that does is make the percentages that much better that you're gonna win.

"If you go back and look at the last couple times we have been there, we haven't played the (full) 60 minutes. That is what we are getting better at. They understand it'll be a 60-minute ballgame. We'll need to come with the same intensity we had last week for 60 minutes.

"What our guys are excited about doing, they understand when you have a Coach Paterno-coached team, they are going to be ready. Both teams are 0-1 in the Big Ten, so it is one of those games with a lot riding on it. Our guys are excited about it."

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