Illini Fighting For Respect Against PSU

The Fighting Illini football team takes on its second straight powerhouse when the Penn State Nittany Lions invade Memorial Stadium Saturday. Joe Paterno will have his team fired up to amend their loss at home to Iowa last week, while the Illini will try to regain their self-respect after playing below their potential at Ohio State. A capacity crowd should see a good game.

Penn State defeated three weak nonconference foes before struggling against Iowa. But those who think the Nittany Lions are vulnerable don't know the quality on that team. Illinois coach Ron Zook tried to set the record straight this week.

"Obviously they're a good football team. They have their quarterback back, two offensive linemen are back, the running back is back, receivers that maybe didn't start last year but they played against us last year are back, the tight end is back.

"Defensively they have four starters back, two guys who are touted for All-American. If you can go back and look at the things you've seen in the past four or five years, those are the things you're going to continue to see. They do a great job of coaching obviously, and it'll be a battle."

The Illini offense needs to have a breakout game to get its swagger back, but that won't be easy facing a strong and fundamentally sound Penn State defense. Juice Williams has played them three times now and knows what to expect.

"It's Linebacker U. They always have a great linebacker corps. Those guys hit hard. They're very solid defensively. They do things very aggressively. They attack the ball, and they get turnovers. It's a typical Penn State defense. It's something you expect every year."

Center Eric Block knows the offensive line is in for a battle Saturday.

"Penn State poses a lot of challenges for our offensive line regardless of what their mental state is right now. They've got a great d-line. Their inside two will cause a lot of problems for our interior line. We like the challenge, but there will be some battles in the trenches."

Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui knows the Nittany Lions want to make up for their poor showing last week. He wants the Illini to play with passion.

"We've got a pissed off Penn State team coming in here, but we're the same way coming off big losses. It should be a great game Saturday, and hopefully a great atmosphere.

"If we can get guys to play as hard as the guys did (against PSU) in 2007, we'll have a great chance to be successful. For whatever reason, everyone's not doing that right now. Coach talks about playing with passion and energy throughout the game. Something's got to click, and hopefully it will be this weekend.

"To be the best, you've got to beat the best."

Defensive end Clay Nurse agrees with Hoomanawanui about PSU's state of mind.

"They're pretty angry about it (loss to Iowa), and they're gonna come in and try to exact vengence against the Illini."

While both Penn State and Ohio State try to balance pass and run and have dual threat quarterbacks, Nurse feels the Nittany Lion offense differs from the Buckeyes in important ways.

"I think the Penn State offense is different than Ohio State. Ohio State has Terrelle Pryor, he's obviously a guy that can eat up some turf. Daryll Clark is a guy that can throw the ball. People don't give him enough credit for what he can do with the football when he's sitting in the pocket.

"They've lost some name receivers, but the guys they have are still producing. So I think they're a pretty formidable team. They can attack you in many ways. Evan Royster can run the ball anywhere inside, outside. So I think it's a very balanced attack.

"Their quarterback is a big guy who can run through tackles, kind of similar to Juice. So he's one of those guys you've got to wrap up and go down to the ground with. You've got to hit them, hit them, and hit them until they fold.

"Penn State has some pretty tough, hard-nosed offensive linemen. They come off the ball, they get after you, so we're really gonna have to strap the helmet up this week."

Safety Donsay Hardeman expanded on the differences between Pryor and Clark.

"The difference between Pryor and Clark is that Pryor would rather scramble. Clark will scramble, but he sets up to throw. If Pryor had a chance to run, he would run. But Clark, if he had a chance to throw he would throw. Clark will scramble out and make you think he's gonna run, so you have to stay in coverage."

Hardeman is looking forward to having a home game. He believes the Illini defense is improving, and the home crowd can help boost their energy level.

"I think it's a big help to play in front of our crowd. When we have ups and downs or adversity in a game, it's a plus to play at home.

"All I care about is winning. I'm just worried about executing and winning the ball game. That's what we need to do right now.

"Penn State had a bad game last week. I know their quarterback is gonna try to have a better game this week. I know we're gonna have to carry out our assignments more than at Ohio State. It was raining, so we knew they were gonna try to run the ball more.

"This week, db's are gonna have to watch their p's and q's. This is gonna be our test because people don't think we can cover. It's what we know we can do inside of us. A lot of us can cover, so we'll be fine."

Iowa's defense dominated the Penn State offensive line and forced Clark out of his comfort zone. Zook is convinced PSU will have learned from its mistakes by this weekend.

"Penn State will be a better football team this week than they were last week. That's their first big test, and it was a heck of a ball game."

Co-defensive coordinator Curt Mallory learned some things from the Iowa game as well.

"Obviously, there are some things we'd like to be able to do to maybe copy some of the things that they've done. They do a great job up front. Their d-line did an exceptional job getting after the quarterback. Anytime you have a great defense, it starts up front. Iowa did a great job doing that."

Of course, Illinois is better off not changing to copy someone else.

"Iowa's gonna do what they do, and we've got to do what we do. They didn't do anything special. They lined up and played hard. They knew where to go, and they played aggressive. That's what we have to do. We need to play aggressive and play with excitement."

Despite the 1-2 start, Illinois players remain optimistic about the season and this game. Offensive guard Jon Asamoah is among them.

"We want to be playing in the bowl season. The o-line, we're focused. Our confidence, we believe we can be good. All of us. We've got to clean things up. But we're still a confident group. I'm confident of my guys up there."

Juice Williams won't guarantee a victory, but he knows the team will be fired up to play well Saturday.

"You've got to get high. It's your second home game, and it will be like my first home game, so I'll be very excited. But it should be fun. It's always great to play Penn State. They've got a great team, and they're looking to redeem themselves after this past week's loss. One thing I can guarantee is a hard-fought battle."

Penn State is extremely well coached and generally makes few mistakes. They have a conservative style that has stood the test of time. If Illinois plays a sound game with minimal penalties and mistakes and no turnovers, an upset is possible. But it has to play at peak efficiency for the entire 60 minutes.

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