Nittany Lions Running at Full Speed

All of Penn State's top running backs are expected to be healthy for Saturday's Big Ten opener against Illinois in Champaign.

For the first time since the season opener, Penn State will have all its top running backs available Saturday, when the Nittany Lions open Big Ten play at Illinois.

Whether the Lions (2-2) will also have any added motivation after some attempted poaching this summer on the part of the Fighting Illini (2-2) is open to speculation.

The story is well-known by now. While announcing sanctions against the PSU program in July, the NCAA gave every Lion the option to transfer without having to sit out a year, as is normally the case under transfer rules. Tim Beckman, the Illini's first-year coach, sent members of his staff to State College to recruit players -- something decried, most notably, by Penn State linebacker Mike Mauti.

Beckman told reporters Monday he regretted only that the matter “ended up being this talked-about,” and added that his staffers were operating within NCAA guidelines, that they were not on campus but at an off-campus site and that they informed players they could visit if they so chose.

Beckman also said one player had contacted the Illini about transferring before the sanctions were handed down, but didn't name him. Offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki ultimately shipped out to Illinois. He was one of nine players to leave Penn State's program in all.

Mauti would not discuss the matter with reporters when asked about it after last Saturday's 24-13 victory over Temple. Nor has he been made available for interviews this week. When his roommate, fullback Michael Zordich, was asked during a conference call Tuesday if Mauti might be more fired up than usual, Zordich said, “I wouldn't say that. We're all ready to go. It's the Big Ten now. We're all just excited. We're all looking forward to it. We're all fired up.”

Earlier Zordich had said that “if some guys want to use it as motivation, they can use it as motivation,” but that the team as a whole is more motivated by the fact that conference play is here. That is in keeping with something coach Bill O'Brien said during his weekly news conference.

“Our players are very focused on the Big Ten schedule,” he said. “I believe that our players are really focused this week on building on what they did well in the Temple game and improving in areas where we really need to improve as it relates to the Temple game. They're not concerned with anything other than playing a tough road game in Champaign against a good Illinois team.”

There was a follow-up question: Was O'Brien bothered that Illinois appears to be the only Big Ten team to have recruited his players?

“It takes a lot to bother me,” he said, and then he repeated that his players are focused on the task at hand -- on the practice schedule this week, which he then summarized.

Added defensive tackle Jordan Hill, “I think we were only mad about it when it happened. We've gotten over it. We don't care too much about it, because it wasn't like they were the only people trying to contact us. I just want to go out there and play another game.”

He said that while it's not a big deal to him -- “I never was in contact with them,” he said -- some of the Lions will surely seize on the whole matter.

“As a football player, you use any type of motivation to get you going,” he said. “Some guys might. I won't, because it didn't really affect me at all.”

He did say that it has been discussed by the players, “but it's all just fun and games.”

“Nobody's out there saying 'I hate these guys,' or anything like that,” he said. “We're using it for extra motivation, I guess you could say.”

O'Brien said he expects tailback Bill Belton, his opening-week starter, to play Saturday. Ditto for the next two tailbacks on the depth chart, Derek Day and Curtis Dukes, as well as Zordich, a fullback who has been pressed into service as the feature back of late.

Belton has missed the last three games with an ankle sprain, while Day (shoulder) has missed the last two and Dukes (thigh) sat out against Temple. Zordich hurt his left knee at the end of the third quarter against the Owls, after running 15 times for 75 yards -- eclipsing his one-week-old career high by 25.

Zordich did not practice Monday, but said he expected to do so Tuesday and that he will be “good to go” come Saturday.

That means O'Brien now has to sort some things out at running back, where he has used not only those four guys but fullback Zach Zwinak. The redshirt sophomore saw the bulk of the work after Zordich was injured Saturday, running 18 times for 94 yards. He had rushed six times for nine yards in his career before that.

“It's tough to use all five -- definitely tough to use all five,” O'Brien said. “I definitely see us using two or three. Depends how they practice during the week.”

He plans to alternate all of them with the first-string offense during drills -- “a committee-type approach,” he said.

It is “a good situation,” he said, “… so we're going to continue to compete at that position. When Saturday rolls around, we'll see which ones are going to play.”

“We've got guys that can do one thing,” Zordich said, “we've got guys that can do another thing and we've got some guys who can do a little bit of both. It's just tough for other defenses, because they don't know what to expect or who's going to be in, or what kind of schemes they're going to be facing. It just helps everybody out.”

The Lions ran for a season-high 173 yards on 42 attempts against Temple, but are nonetheless dead last in the Big Ten (and 96th in the country) in rushing offense, averaging 124 yards a game. (They are also 99th in the nation in scoring, at 22 points a game.)

They are facing an Illinois defense that is fourth in the conference against the rush (100.2) and fifth in total defense (324.2).

Last week Illinois allowed 119 yards on the ground (but just 3.2 a pop) in a 52-24 home loss to Louisiana Tech. Tech gained 403 yards in all, and took advantage of six turnovers by the Illini.

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