Bill O’Brien is strikingly frank as his Penn State Nittany Lions prepare for Saturday’s game against Illinois.
“Losing (stinks). It’s not fun,” he said. “We’ve gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. At Penn State, I rely on the foundation. I think the players are just fine.”
Recent weeks have been a Big Ten roller coaster. The Nittany Lions were bombed at Indiana 44-24, returned home to stun Michigan 43-40 in four overtimes, and were shellacked at Ohio State 63-14.
The Penn State foundation, as established by the late Joe Paterno, has been in many ways shattered. The university is even now paying $59.7 million in a settlement to 26 victims in the Jerry Sandusky case. And the Nittany Lions again are barred from postseason play.
But two factors have continued to drive the program: (1) demonstrative home crowds that revel in the winning tradition and (2) the sense that, in winning 12 of 19 games under O’Brien, these athletes are overachieving.
They have a knack for reaching back under pressure, a fact that Illinoisans have painfully observed. Two are particularly memorable.
— On Nov. 12, 1994, the unbeaten Nittany Lions drew 72,364 fans at Memorial Stadium, fell behind 21-0 early and pulled it out 35-31 with a 96-yard TD drive in the waning moments.
— More recently, in a dagger to the heart of Ron Zook’s program, a 2011 Nittany Lions team that had been smothered all day rallied for its only TD at 1:08 to prevail 10-7.
They have won 16 of 20 against Illinois over time.
Listening to Big Ten coaches from an Illini perspective, we were reminded how difficult November can be when you’re not in contention.
For example, there’s Mark Dantonio, riding a wave. His home date against Michigan won’t require a Vince Lombardi speech because no squad in America will carry more emotion than 7-1 Michigan State, winner in four of the last five in the series.
“The stakes keep getting higher, and we’re playing with more confidence,” Dantonio said. “We’ve hung our hat on our defense, and we believe the game will be decided at the line of scrimmage ... running the ball and stopping the run.”
The stakes are different for Illinois, and confidence is a concern. The Illini are not playing a natural rival, are underdogs in a distant land, are forced to reset modest goals after 17 straight Big Ten losses and appear to be at a disadvantage in the trenches with a defense that ranks 103rd in the country.
These are, as indicated by Saturday’s empty stands in the fourth quarter, extremely difficult times for the Illini ... and the results of the next five games will have a telling impact on Tim Beckman’s program.
Salt in the wounds
Gary Andersen has momentum building at Wisconsin as the Badgers travel to Iowa.
“At this point in the season, kids have to like what they’re doing,” he said. “Teams talk about being physical, and Iowa is one that backs it up. They’re salty up front, and their secondary works well together.”
By contrast, Illinoisans can only hope the players are enjoying the game after a second half in which they converted one first down and allowed Michigan State to march without hindrance. No one would describe Illinois’ front seven as “salty.”
Andersen praised his 1-2 running punch of Melvin Gordon and James White, those two combining for 18 TDs and 1,684 yards in seven games. Consider this disparity:
Gordon has been a major part of a rumbling ground attack for four years. In 2010 he, Montee Ball and John Clay accumulated 3,060 yards and 46 TDs, in 2011 White and Ball showed 2,636 and 39 TDs, and in 2012 the trio of Ball, White and Gordon had 3,257 yards and 37 TDs.
By contrast, Illinois had no punch Saturday, much less a 1-2 punch. The UI’s leading rusher and pass receiver in 2012, Donovonn Young, failed to touch the ball against Michigan State as the ground offense netted 25 yards. The Illini had the ball for 42 offensive plays.
All this said, as dismal as it appears, Penn State has secondary weaknesses that offer Bill Cubit’s aerial offense an opportunity.
Linebacker U is hurting at the position, and the safeties are weak.
In short, the sanctions are taking their toll on the football program. The Nittany Lions are still stronger than Illinois up front, but, if Nathan Scheelhaase can locate and connect with his receivers, they might find success against a defense that allowed 141 points in three losses.
Offensively, the Nittany Lions rely on a raw freshman, Christian Hackenberg, who was banged around by the Buckeyes, was intercepted twice and did not return in the second half.
Illinois isn’t the only team entering November with problems.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.