Receivers Look to Pick Up the Slack

With the quarterback situation up in the air due to injuries, Butler and company intend to take it to another level when the Nittany Lions play host to Illinois in a homecoming tilt at Beaver Stadium this weekend.

Deon Butler is getting tired of all this losing. Penn State has already lost three times as many games as it did all of last season. Although the opponents to whom they have fallen were all ranked in the top five at the time they faced the Nittany Lions, Butler doesn't see any reason why he and his teammates couldn't have prevailed in any of those games.

“We don't care who we're playing,” the redshirt sophomore receiver said Wednesday. “We shouldn't be losing.”

Saturday's homecoming matchup against Illinois would seem to be just what the Lions need to help them regroup. But with the quarterback position unsettled following injuries to Anthony Morelli and Daryll Clark in last Saturday's 17-10 loss to Michigan, there's no telling what to expect from Penn State's offense. The Wolverines wounded more than just its pride.

Butler said that for the Lions to thrive with an inexperienced player under center — Paul Cianciolo is the probable starter if Morelli and Clark haven't recovered from their concussions — the receivers will have to do their best to make the quarterback's job easier. One of the keys, he said, is to concentrate on gaining yards after the catch. Said Butler, “We've got to make some big plays. When the quarterback makes the easy throw, we're going to have to take it from there.”

Tailback Tony Hunt did just that against Michigan, turning a short pass from Cianciolo into a 43-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that got the Lions back in the game. Butler and the other Penn State skill players would be thrilled to reprise that moment against the Illini.

Whether they will get that chance is another question. Illinois is ranked seventh in the Big Ten in points allowed (25.6 per game) and fifth in yards (314.7) allowed. Those numbers might not seem impressive, but they represent a significant improvement from last year when the Illini surrendered just under 40 points per game.

“They're a lot more physical this year,” Butler said. “They look like they know what they're doing, more so than last year. Last year, they seemed to have a lot more chaos going on. Maybe that had something to do with the new coach and new system they were learning. But with a year in their system and knowing what Coach [Ron] Zook wants, they look a lot more comfortable. They're playing a lot faster than last year. They're real aggressive. It shows when they step up and beat a team like Michigan State. So they definitely have talent. They're definitely a lot better than the ball club we saw on film last year.”

Penn State is in the opposite position, having lost several of the key components from last season's Orange Bowl championship team. The Big Ten title and BCS appear well out of reach in the wake of the Michigan loss.

But while players may be frustrated with the team's 4-3 record and diminished postseason prospects, there is a lot at stake for Penn State in the final five weeks of the regular season.

“We're still aiming for a good bowl game,” Butler said. “The guys who were here last year, we don't know any other way than a bowl game. We don't want to sit at home and watch everybody else play. So we're still motivated. We just have to learn from the losses.”

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