Can Illini Overcome Odds At Happy Valley?

The Fighting Illini football team travels to Penn State for the second year in a row. It won impressively last season, but it is facing a much more experienced unit this time around. The Illini need to get back to their winning ways, but they will need to beat Penn State at its best to do so.

Every Illinois football player is looking forward to facing the legendary Joe Paterno and Penn State in Happy Valley Saturday afternoon. Illini head coach Ron Zook knows how good the 7-1 Nittany Lions are, but he reminds his Illini are good also and driven to reverse the last two weeks' results.

"It's a good football team. They've lost one game, got beat by Alabama. Good football team, but you know what? We're a good football team, too. You know, we're 6-2. Do we have to play better? Yeah, absolutely. But I think that's the challenge that our guys are taking. I think we've got to go out there and play loose. Let `er roll.

"These guys are looking forward to it. They're excited about going out there. And if you can't get excited about going to play in Happy Valley, then I don't know if you can get excited about college football. It's the 3:30 slot on ABC, so it's a national game. What better opportunity for us to do the things that we know we're capable of doing?"

Tight end Evan Wilson confirms the excitement Illini players feel about visiting Happy Valley.

"It's a great stadium. Even when we're driving up to it, it's just a good place to play. All those people, and last year was a whiteout, so there was a lot of energy in that place. That's what I enjoyed about it."

Linebacker Jonathan Brown agrees the place gets the competitive juices flowing.

"It's Happy Valley. It's 110,000 people, all wearing white. You can't get that anywhere else. I'm really looking forward to going there."

The Illini remember their big win against PSU last year and feel that will boost confidence going into this game. But defensive coordinator Vic Koenning reminds this is a much better team they're facing this year.

"Last year it looked like they were learning. This year, it looks like a well-oiled machine. We're gonna have to play the very best we can to keep us in the game."

Koenning highlights the Penn State offense.

"Good players. Good offensive line, good running backs who are playing a lot better, really good receivers."

The Nittany Lions struggled with a freshman quarterback when they played Illinois last year. But Rob Bolden has been joined by Matt McGloin in a two-pronged attack that Koenning respects.

"Both of them are playing better this year, but the last two games they're really playing at a great level. When they throw the ball, they look like dad gum Aaron Rodgers, all the boots and counters and play-action, just darting the ball in there. Last week was unbelievable. That's what creates problems."

Silas Redd is another Penn State running back clone. He has plenty of back-up, but Koenning says he's the dominant yard-getter.

"He's what you would expect at Penn State. Slashing, quick, can dodge you but runs the ball with a passion. They're really playing with an attitude the last few weeks. They're playing a lot more aggressively the last few weeks.

"You've got to stop something. Stopping the run is the way we start, and then we work from there. We've got to do some different stuff, and we've got to play like we know how to play."

Brown has great respect for the PSU offense.

"They've got a lot of weapons on offense. When the offense gets going, they can score. They mix run and pass, so it's gonna be a tough game. This game will come down to which defense is toughest. We've got to prepare like they're the #1 team in the nation. Last year doesn't play any part in this year."

Penn State is known for its linebackers. Illinois has had a number of great ones also. Brown accepts the challenge to see who's best this year.

"We're 'Linebacker U,' and they're 'Linebacker U.' I think this game is gonna show which school is the real 'Linebacker U.'"

Cornerback Tavon Wilson reminds that, even without star Derek Moye, the Penn State receivers are at least as good as other aspects of their offense.

"It's a tough opponent, and we're going into a tough place to play. They have a balanced offense, they have two very good quarterbacks, two good running backs and probably the best receiver corps we've faced all year."

If the PSU offense sounds excellent, it takes second fiddle to one of the top defenses in the country. As a defensive coach himself, Zook can attest to their quality.

"They're fifth in the nation, and the Alabama coaches felt like their front was probably the best they've faced in awhile. If you're a competitor, you want to play against the best. We've got to execute what we do and take advantage of some things that they give you."

They will not give you the long touchdown play. Their conservative style requires execution without mistakes according to Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino.

"The focus this week is, it's gonna be an old fashioned grind-it-out win. We have to have 10-12-14 play drives. We have to execute our quick passing game and run the ball well and stay in front of the sticks. They count on their defense to not give up big plays. We've got to be mentally tough and win it that way."

He will probably use running back Jason Ford frequently to establish a running game against a team known for its run defense. The Illini offensive line has not played up to its potential the past two weeks, and they're facing one of the best d-lines in the conference. Tackle Jeff Allen recognizes the task ahead.

"They're pretty good, especially up front. They've got two solid defensive tackles, they're d-ends are good. They make a lot of plays in the backfield, so we have to do a good job preventing them from getting penetration."

A balanced attack will be essential to keep PSU on its heels. Petrino says getting receiver Darius Millines back this week may help.

"He gives us another guy they've got to worry about and have to defend. He's another guy that's confident and has made plays, has a little bit of swagger and bounce about himself. He's a good blocker too. It would be good to have him back."

Evan Wilson sees hope despite the rankings.

"They've got some pretty good ball players over there. But it's a lot of the same guys they had last year, and they run the same schemes. So we should be able to get after them."

The Illini need to get after them for 60 minutes. They have started slowly the past two weeks; getting off to a quick start is essential. They have worked on that all week. They know how important a win would be for their season.

"Hopefully we'll have this win and then go into the bye week," receiver A.J. Jenkins states. "That would definitely be a real good boost for us when we play Michigan and Wisconsin."

Evan Wilson says the value of a win cannot be understated.

"Just get our momentum back and then try to hit that streak again. That's what we need, and that's what I think we're gonna do."

Tavon Wilson summarizes how all Illini feel heading into this important weekend.

"We're going out there to win a football game and play the best way we can play. We're gonna worry about playing one play at a time. I feel like we're a good team that can get better.

"A win would mean a lot. It would let people know we are a good football team. We're not just a fluke football team, we're pretty good. For whatever reason, we just didn't win our last two games. We've got to come out and play the way we're capable of playing. I feel like we'll do that this week."

Illini Inquirer Top Stories