Penn State Toughest Illini Opponent So Far

The Fighting Illini football team is 3-1 so far, and fans are excited about prospects for an outstanding season. However, the meat of the schedule is staring them squarely in the face. The next four weeks will go a long way toward determining how good these Illini really are. First up is Penn State Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Reading the roster of the Penn State Nittany Lions is like reviewing a Who's Who of high school All-Americans. Superstars line up to attend the school under the tutelage of ageless Joe Paterno, now in his 42nd year at the helm. Penn State lost its first game of the season last week at Michigan, but that is no reflection on the quality of their players or coaching staff. Michigan is better than their record, and the Nittany Lions may be also.

Some PSU fans are tired of conservative play calling and wonder why Joe Pa doesn't open up his offense to let his great athletes do their thing. But that play calling minimizes mistakes that can turn victory into defeat and has stood the test of time. Perhaps a better question is why so many great skill position athletes choose a school that may not utilize them to the fullest. But whatever the reason, they do win. Often.

The Nittany Lions are led on offense by senior signal caller Anthony Morelli. The 6'-4", 231 pounder was a high school All-American who has had a somewhat enigmatic career so far. But he is a high-percentage passer who has had a couple of years experience in the offense. So far this season, he has completed 70 of 118 passes for 797 yards and 8 touchdowns. He is more passer than runner, but he can pick teams apart if he has the time to find his receivers.

Those receivers would make any quarterback happy. Justin Norwood (5'-10", 164) is their leader so far with 15 catches and two touchdowns. He is joined by starters Derrick Williams (6'-0", 189) and Deon Butler (5'-10", 170). Williams was a one-time Ron Zook recruit for Florida before Zook left there. He has not always lived up to his billing as the number one high school player in the country, but he is extremely fast and dangerous. The talented Andrew Quarless, a prototypical 6'-5", 250 tight end who is also a major weapon.

Injuries have depleted the offensive line a little, but PSU always has a large number of talented linemen who are maturing and improving as the season goes along. Running backs Austin Scott (6'-2", 212) and Rodney Kinlaw (5'-9", 199) do most of the ball carrying. Kinlaw the leader so far with 313 yards in four games. Scott is the one Penn State fans want to see, but he has struggled holding onto the ball at times. Otherwise, he is a load. Evan Royster (6'-1", 210) is a redshirt freshman and former All-American who is waiting in the wings for his turn.

Illinois head coach Ron Zook summarized the quality of the Penn State offense.

"They're loaded in all phases. Offensively, they are better than they were last year. The offensive line is better. The quarterback was awfully good last year and is even better this year. They've got a bunch of receivers now that they can take their pick. They run the ball extremely well. The things that they do they do extremely well."

Defensively, the Nittany Lions have only one senior, but he is special. Middle linebacker Dan Connor (6'-3", 237) already has 5.5 tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks, among his team leading 38 tackles. Connor is an All-American candidate and next in an extremely long line of Penn State linebackers destined for the NFL.

Connor's linebacker mates Sean Lee (6'2", 232) and Tyrell Sales (6-2", 236) are just as dominant, and they have ample depth. As a "Linebacker U", Penn State is without peer. Connor already has 35 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss in his first four games.

The PSU defensive line is young but mobile and athletic. Phil Taylor (6'-4", 335) was the top high school defensive tackle in the country two years ago in Maryland, but he is still second string behind fellow sophomore Jared Odrick (6'-5", 295) at Penn State. Redshirt freshman Ollie Ogbu (6'-1", 287) and sophomore Chris Baker (6'2", 298) are mobile athletes at the other tackle spot.

Sophomore defensive end Maurice Evans (6'-2", 257) is third in the Big Ten with -34 yards in three tackles for loss. Josh Gaines, Jerome Hayes and Aaron Maybin will all see time at defensive end.

The Nittany Lion defensive backfield is fast and talented. Illini fans may recall how Justin King (6'-0", 186) caught Rashard Mendenhall from behind in Penn State's 26-12 victory in Happy Valley last year. He is joined at corner by Lydell Sargent (5'-10", 190) and potential future superstar A. J. Wallace (6'-1", 193). Sargent already has 21 tackles on the season and one interception.

Junior safety Anthony Scirrotto (6'-0, 195) was named 1st team All-Big Ten last year and played a major role in PSU's win over Illinois last year by intercepting two passes during clutch time. Mark Rubin (6'2"-224) will receive significant time at safety even if normal starter Tony Davis (5'-10, 197) is recovered fully from a minor injury. All these defensive backs and several of their replacements are high quality players.

The Nittany Lions are no slouch on special teams either. Field goal kicker Kevin Kelly is a Groza Award nominee. Freshman punter Jeremy Boone leads the Big Ten with a 43.8 yard average. A. J. Wallace is an exciting kick returner who is third in the nation with an average of 37.2 yards per return. And Derrick Williams leads the Big Ten and is ninth in the nation in punt returns with an 18.6 yard average.

Penn State's defense is yielding a miserly 55 yards rushing and 193 passing yards per game. And they are presently second in the nation with 19 sacks on the year. Coach Zook was glowing in his praise. "Defensively, they've got a linebacker that's all-world and all-everything. Penn State defensively is in the top 10, and they are sixth in the nation in rushing defense. I think it shows that they are going to play good defense, and they are always going to have linebackers, DB's and defensive lines. One of their most active defensive linebackers is a freshman, a little bit like Vontae as a freshman. He's a sophomore this year, and he's just tearing it up. (They have) some good young players that are playing hard. There will be a battle."

Illini Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley sees no gimmicks or extremes from PSU, just a sound defense that has outstanding athletes at all positions.

"They place eight men up, and they do just about what everybody else does in terms of lining up. Now, they've got some pretty good players, some good linebackers."

If Illinois wants to be the best, they need to beat the best. And there are few finer than the Penn State Nittany Lions. It will be a tough physical battle all the way.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories