There’s been plenty of positive spin in both the Penn State and Illinois football meeting rooms this week.
The two teams have combined to surrender 284 points over their past three games and each is need of a turnaround. One will do that at the expense of the other as the Fighting Illini (3-4, 0-3) and Nittany Lions (4-3, 1-2) square off at Beaver Stadium at noon on Saturday.
“We’ve gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said of his team’s recent two-game swing — an emotional, four-overtime win over Michigan followed by a 63-14 defeat at Ohio State.
O’Brien’s message to his team has been simple:
“In life, if that blowout loss is the worst thing that happens to you, you’re going to have a pretty good life,” he said.
Meanwhile, Illinios coach Tim Beckman has also spent time on positive reinforcement. The Illini are still looking for their first Big Ten win in is tenure. They’ve been routed in three straight games and are giving up 43 points per Big Ten game on the road since Beckman took over.
Still, the second-year Illini coach hasn’t been deterred.
“All I’m stressing is the positive things they’ve done and we’ll continue to do that,” Beckman said. “We’ll watch the film of them making the good play and then we’ll show them not making that good play and say `Hey, you’ve done it. We just have to do it on a more consistent basis.’ And that’s the bottom line: We have to be more consistent because we can play good football and we’ve shown that.”
But while Penn State has been up and down since the Big Ten season started, the Illini have been consistently bad.
Illinois has given up nearly 900 rushing yards and allowed 12 touchdowns on the ground in three games. The Illini have committed six turnovers in that same span and have led just once in the past 12 quarters. A first-quarter field goal against Michigan State allowed the Illini to carry a 3-0 lead into the second quarter before the Spartans reeled of 42 unanswered points to spoil homecoming in Champagne.
The Illinois offense has had its bright moments, however. Led by fourth-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois has benefitted from new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit.
Illinois has kept pace with Penn State and is averaging 31 points per game. Meanwhile, the Illini passing attack is fourth in the Big Ten with 261 yards per game.
Illinois has lost its primary deep threat, Ryan Langkford, to a broken shoulder bone. But the Illini still have a number of weapons in the passing game, including running back Josh Ferguson who has caught 25 passes this season. Scheelhaase has run the offense with efficiency and is completing 65 percent of his throws. He’s also on pace to move to No. 2 on Illinois’ all-time passing yardage list behind Juice Williams.
“He’s a guy that’s improved his throwing ability. He’s got better command of the offense,” O’Brien said. “He’s doing a great job with Coach Cubit’s offense. And he’s second year in Coach Beckman’s program and things like that. So he’s a much improved player, and he’s a guy that’s a big challenge for us on Saturday.”
Penn State players are looking forward to the challenge of bouncing back. They’ve followed losses to UCF and Indiana with big wins — a shutout against Kent State and a wild four-overtime triumph over Michigan.
There will be changes as the loss to the Buckeyes forced Penn State coaches to re-examine their approach.
O’Brien defended defensive coordinator John Butler this week but acknowledged that the Penn State defense needs to simplify its calls to streamline its on-field communication. There will also be changes in the secondary as Adrian Amos will move up to cornerback from his usual safety spot. Amos played a lot of corner against the Buckeyes with Malcolm Willis, Jesse Della Valle and Ryan Keiser manning the safety spots.
“We’re very excited to get back out there,” Penn State linebacker Mike Hull said. “Once you have a loss like that, you want to get that bad taste out of your mouth. So we’re excited to get back out there and prove ourselves again like we did against Michigan after the Indiana game.”