Illini Trying for First Win in Happy Valley

Tradition, home field advantage, overall depth of talent and statistics all favor Penn State when Illinois travels to Happy Valley Saturday evening. But game outcomes are not always predictable. The Fighting Illini look forward to the challenge ahead.

Illinois has never won at State College, having lost five in a row there. Overall, Penn State has a 12-3 advantage over the Illini. The Nittany Lions are flying high after destroying four consecutive nonconference opponents. And they have scheduled their second ever "White Out" for the Illini game, meaning 100,000+ PSU fans will be dressed in white to intimidate the visitors.

Illinois quarterback Juice Williams has played there before and knows what to expect.

"It's a great atmosphere. They have great fan support with 100 plus thousand out there, and it's a tough place to play. It (white out game) just makes you have chills almost. You know it will be an exciting game and you will get booed. You have to use the energy for your game.

"We've just got to go out there, ignore the odds, ignore the noise and try to come out on top. Fans are screaming, sometimes they make slurs at you, but that's all fun and games. That's what we're there for. I'm expecting a roller coaster, plus they will be looking for revenge, so we just have to go out there and try to get a victory somehow."

Penn State thought they should have won last year in Champaign, a game that helped propel the Illini to the Rose Bowl. Juice's body remembers the game well.

"Last year, it was a hard fought battle. I had cuts and bruises on my hands, I had a scar on my back. So I'm anticipating a war out there. I'm just trying to come back alive hopefully. But one of the things I learned, you can't add unnecessary pressure to yourself. You've just got to go out there smiling and have fun. That's when I tend to play my best. So that's what I'm trying to do every week."

Middle linebacker and spokesman Brit Miller thinks the Illini benefitted from having a week without a game. Camp Rantoul was long and grueling, and the Illini players needed to rest their minds and bodies for the Big Ten season.

"I think a lot of people got a lot of good out of this weekend. You woke up Saturday and it was game day, but you weren't with your boys and your teammates. It was good to get back here. We even enjoyed the 6:00am lifts. I think we were getting to the point where we needed a break. We practiced with effort and practiced hard.

Despite similar starts to the season, Miller believes the 2008 Illini are much different than last year's team.

"We know we can compete in the Big Ten and have beaten teams. We know that they're looking for us now for revenge. We still have so much to prove. This is so much a different team (from last year). This is where we start as a team, right now. We've got to prove we belong in the Big Ten and belong on top of the Big Ten."

Miller believes things are falling into place for his Illini.

"This is one of the games you have to really grind, a tough part of the schedule. Fortunately, we had some rest so our bodies will be refreshed. We might be a little rusty, but the way we practice, at the tempo we do, I think we'll be all right. I would rather play last week because I like to play ball. But I think everything is happening for a reason, and it's going according to schedule right now."

Penn State's high-powered, experienced offense is a definite problem for the Illini defense even though their plan of attack is well known.

"They still do the same things they've done for years and years," Coach Ron Zook explains. "They're always going to have a new wrinkle here and there. You've just got to be prepared for it. There's continuity with guys there a long time. They're deep, all three of their receivers are starting for the fourth straight year. They're a talented team."

Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley has been focusing on eliminating turnovers and penalties that have restricted his offense to date.

"We've been focusing on our execution, taking care of the football, minimizing drops and penalties, the things that kind of haunted us the first three games. We're trying to put together a game plan that's gonna give us a chance to win the game. It all starts with us and our execution rather than changing anything."

Locksley is impressed with the Nittany Lion defense.

"Penn State's defense is really tough, a tremendous challenge. They've got tremendous depth. They're at the point where they can lose two starters and get better. Obviously, that's where you would like to be with your program. A guy knows if he isn't doing the things he needs to do, the next guy steps in and is equally as talented. Hats off to those guys for having that type of depth."

Depth is more of a concern for Illinois. True freshman Jeff Allen starts at right tackle and will have to face ultra quick Aaron Maybin, a defensive end with seven sacks on the young season. And his replacement may be Maurice Evans, a preseason All-American who has been reinstated in time for Illinois. Locksley isn't conceding anything despite the apparent discrepancy.

"Sometimes, youth serves you well. When you're young and don't know what you don't know, sometimes you're that much better than the older guy who maybe has some preconceived ideas.

"Jeff (Allen) and we are all excited about the opportunity. He's going against a guy that's pretty young as well, so we'll see how he stacks up with Maybin. He's played some ball for us, he'll be ok. We've played freshmen before."

Locksley is matter-of-fact about Illinois' chances in the game.

"This game is no different than any other game. For us, our best players have to play their best. If that's good enough at the end, it'll show on the scoreboard. The last thing we need our guys to do is go out and try to play above and beyond their abilities.

"Penn State's a great team, but we've got a lot of confidence in our players. We've got some pretty good players on our side of the ball too. It's business as usual, we go out and execute and play to the best of our abilities. If it's good enough, we'll win the game. If it's not, we won't."

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