Ohio University offered a template for dissecting Penn State’s defense.
Virginia, Temple and Navy couldn’t follow it.
The Nittany Lions’ first Big Ten opponent is a different story. Illinois (2-2), which plays host to Penn State (2-2) at noon today at Memorial Stadium, likes to throw underneath routes and uses a no-huddle, spread attack.
When healthy, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who missed two games with an ankle injury, zips passes on the run.
Four weeks after allowing 499 total yards and loads of third-down conversions in a 24-14 season-opening loss to Ohio, the Nittany Lions receive a forum to showcase their defensive improvement.
“All of us coaches tend to have some copycat in us,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “That’s from studying film and things. So we try to do things that other teams have had success with. I believe our defense has been much improved in some of the things Ohio did against us.”
O’Brien said Temple tried to mirror some of Ohio’s tactics. But the Owls, who fell 24-13 last weekend at Beaver Stadium, lack the firepower of Illinois, which despite some rough moments early in new coach Tim Beckman’s tenure, has some NFL-caliber players on its offense.
“This is a pretty talented team,” linebacker Gerald Hodges said. “They have a lot of great athletes at every position, running back, quarterback, wide receiver. ... They have a nice o-line. Every time we play them we have to bring it.”
Signs point toward today’s point total quickly exceeding last year’s skimpy output. With snow pelting the Beaver Stadium grass, the Nittany Lions edged the Fighting Illini 10-7. The game ended with Illinois kicker Derek Dimke’s 42-yard field goal attempt plunking the right upright.
The game marked Joe Paterno’s 409th — and final — coaching victory.
He was fired less than two weeks later after news of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal first surfaced.
“It’s pretty crazy to think about that,” running back Michael Zordich said.
Illinois fired Ron Zook, a solid recruiter who wallowed on game days, after the regular season.
Both schools hired head coaches with offensive reputations. O’Brien worked with the New England Patriots’ offense from 2007-11. Beckman’s final University of Toledo team averaged 45.6 points per game last season.
The Nittany Lions and Fighting Illini are awaiting breakout offensive performances under their new coaches.
Penn State ranks in the bottom half of the Big Ten in scoring (22.0 ppg) and total (378.5 ypg) offense. The Fighting Illini scored 44 points two weeks ago against woeful Division I-AA Charleston Southern before using three different quarterbacks — Scheelhaase, Reilly O’Toole and Miles Osei — in last week’s 52-24 home loss to Louisiana Tech.
The return of some key players could enhance the offenses. Penn State tailback Bill Belton and left tackle Donovan Smith are expected to return from ankle injuries. Besides Scheelhaase, Illinois is bracing for the return for veteran offensive lineman Graham Pocic and tight end Evan Wilson.
Scheelhaase and O’Toole give opponents different looks. Scheelhaase, a three-year starter, is shifty. O’Toole functions his best from a cozy pocket.
Similarities exist between Scheelhaase and Ohio’s Tyler Tettleton, who accumulated 371 total yards against the Nittany Lions.
“Anytime you have a quarterback that can run, it’s going to create problems,” linebacker Mike Hull said. “We have to contain him and keep him inside the pocket when he’s passing, create turnovers and get hits on him whenever he decides to pull it down and run.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy