Tate: Penn State, UI teams strikingly similar
Penn State's football team averaged 9.6 victories over the past seven years and shows a 15-4 advantage in the Illini series.
Amid the condemnation and desertions, where do the Nittany Lions go from here? They are obviously hard-pressed this season with so much trash piling up around Beaver Stadium. Still, it would be foolish to consider them a pushover with that rugged defensive front seven intact — the heart of a 9-4 team last season.
Bill O'Brien's team will lean heavily on that D. Twelve members of Joe Paterno's last squad are in NFL camps, and 10 others transferred. Of the 10 who left, three figured prominently: running back Silas Redd (1,241 yards), punter-kicker Anthony Fera and receiver Justin Brown (35 catches).
So, by Penn State standards, this projects as a down year on the field ... which means the first Big Ten game at Memorial Stadium stacks up as a virtual tossup. These rivals mirror each other in multiple ways.
Like Illinois, the Nittany Lions have a new staff and are rebuilding their offensive line, mixing youth and marginal experience around center Matt Stankiewitch. The June depth chart, composed after spring drills, showed 15 linemen ahead of UI transfer Ryan Nowicki, including three in Nowicki's class. The Nittany Lions still have high-quality linemen.
Like Illinois, the Nittany Lions have four solid tight ends and, like Illinois, may start two by using one in the slot to make up for wide receiver deficiencies.
Like Illinois, the Nittany Lions will be inexperienced at running back as former receiver Bill Belton (5-foot-10, 202 pounds) gets the nod after an impressive spring.
Like Illinois, the Nittany Lions will be heavily experienced in the defensive front seven as Gerald Hodges heads an outstanding corps of linebackers. Unlike Illinois, the Nittany Lions must replace all four secondary starters.
The view among Happy Valley media insiders is that O'Brien's new offense will be better than the stodgy Paterno system that averaged 19 points per game in 2011. Fera is a huge loss, but junior Alex Butterworth has punted, and Sam Ficken had a few placement opportunities last year ... which gives them more kicking points than Illinois has returning.
All in all, it is extraordinary how these teams mirror each other. And if you're wondering about quarterback, a perceived Penn State weakness, Matt McGloin completed 72 more passes than Rob Bolden when they shared the position and won the job under O'Brien in the spring before Bolden transferred.
Not a bunch of Hoosiers
New Illini basketball coach John Groce has his eye on a couple of young prospects from Mishawaka and Michigan City.
That's news. Big news. The kind you haven't heard here in seven decades.
That bustling Indiana territory bordering and east of Lake Michigan always has churned out elite athletes. East Chicago has been a longtime hotbed, from the great Vince Boryla through Nick Mantis and George Stepanovich and all the way up to E'Twaun Moore. On east through Gary and LaPorte to South Bend, it has been open season for recruiters.
But not for the Illini. UI coaches haven't even dabbled in it. Discounting Elkhart's Garvin Roberson, who was recruited for football, the last UI basketball letterman was South Bend's Vic Wukovits, a senior sharing the center position with junior Art Mathisen in 1941-42 when the four primary Whiz Kids — Gene Vance, Andy Phillip, Ken Menke and Jack Smiley — were sophomores.
Moving further downstate, there sits Indianapolis, a straight shot east and closer than Chicago's Loop, and the UI has recruited just three cagers from that populous area around Indiana's state capital in 90 years: Ed Searcy of Crispus Attucks (played in 1960), Scott Haffner from nearby Noblesville (1985 before transferring) and the only one who stuck and starred, Mike Price of Arsenal Tech (1968-70).
This is a huge oversight as Illini coaches through the years have bypassed and ultimately been disregarded by Hoosier jump shooters north and south.
Pointing the direction
Today, with Syracuse nabbing guard Tyler Ennis (a Toronto product, he preps in New Jersey), Mishawaka playmaker Demetrius Jackson is undisputed as Groce's No. 1 acquisition project for 2013. Jackson's intended visit next month is causing deep breathing among recruitniks, who sometimes seem more drawn to recruiting than the games themselves.
Should Jackson commit, it would cast the Groce program in an entirely new light.
The reality is that Groce arrived here just as state talent dipped and, in particular, midstate quality. Simeon's Jabari Parker has cut the UI from his list of 10 and, after Belleville's UI commit Malcolm Hill, it's a huge drop to the next available senior in the state. To hear Paul Klee and those who study the subject, it's a full-tank drive to the next point guard on Groce's must-see list.
That's where Jackson comes in. He's right under Notre Dame's nose with the likes of Louisville, Michigan and Kansas in full chase. If Groce pulls it off, this would be "a coup"... and that's not a small car with a rumble seat.
It's unfair to put such pressure on a long-shot bid in foreign territory, but there's nobody like him in Illinois. Success would serve as a blockbuster indication that Groce has the Illini back in the hunt.
Meanwhile, in the real world of competition, rivals are anticipating big seasons. It's not just Indiana and Michigan once again hanging out with the elite. A typical nation's "second 25," which overlooks Illinois, indicates what Tubby Smith is doing at Minnesota, how Steve Alford has succeeded at New Mexico, what Bruce Weber inherited at Kansas State, why Shaka Smart didn't want to leave Virginia Commonwealth, how Rick Majerus has energized St. Louis, what Groce left behind at Ohio, and the developments at Stanford, Harvard, Iowa State and Purdue (again).
There are a lot of programs drawing a spotlight while the Illini light has been flickering.
With all the space on both sides of the Assembly Hall basketball court, how can you have decent sightlines if the floor isn't lowered? And how can you surround the floor with students without making it impossible for the folks in lower Section A?
Those questions are for the engineers and architects with AECOM, not me.
Athletic director Mike Thomas stated Saturday that, after extensive study, lowering the floor has been dropped as part of the renovation because it would be cost prohibitive. The building is already sunk 30 feet into the ground, and the cost of going deeper would be astronomical.
Meanwhile, Thomas informed that the survey sent to 7,000 customers indicated quickly that the demand for premium seating — suites, loge boxes, clubs, courtside — far exceeds the capacity.
And, yes, air conditioning remains on the docket, as well as other designs and amenities not directly related to basketball.
— The four-team completion of the 2014 football season makes sense and is an improvement on the BCS system. But it's a stretch to call it a playoff system. The NCAA tournament, with 68 teams, is a playoff system. This 2014 plan is essentially one game beyond a slightly rearranged bowl system.
— There's minimal news from UI football during this lockdown period, but Tim Beckman has let it be known that his two inside linebackers can be flipped, that senior cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green can be exchanged, and end Michael Buchanan will show up on either edge. Last year the offensive line flip-flopped, but not this year. If Hugh Thornton starts at left tackle, you'll see him there on every play. Hawthorne expects to double as a wide receiver if he stays healthy, but he hasn't seen any offensive action in practice as yet.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.