It may not be a battle of two top ten teams, but in many ways Penn State’s game Saturday at Illinois is Big Game No. 1 of the Bill O’Brien era.
Before the season started many thought that the games at Virginia and at Illinois would go a long way in determining how good this Nittany Lion team would be.
Well, the loss at Virginia was as crushing as losses get. Yet, Penn State has won two straight since then and has shown improvement throughout the season.
Now, it’s the Big 10 opener and a win at Illinois puts the Lions above .500 mark and gives them as many wins as many detractors predicted they would get all season.
It also gives them an idea if their dream of winning a Big 10 division title is realistic or not. A loss to a less than mediocre Illinois team would not bode well for the remainder of the season.
However, a win on the road at Illinois means that all the goals this team had before the season are still attainable – a winning record and division title among them.
Throw in the fact that players and fans alike were irate with the Illinois coaching staff camping out in State College trying to recruit players and all the makings of an emotional game are in place.
“I think Coach O'Brien has done a great job with that program,” said Illinois coach Tim Beckman in his Monday press conference. “You can see how they have progressed each and every week, from the Ohio U game all the way to this last week against Temple. They're 2-2, their goals and their dreams are the same. They want to win a Big Ten championship and this is their first opportunity for a Big Ten game.”
Illinois enters the game with the same 2-2 record as Penn State. The Illini have beaten Western Michigan and Charleston Southern. They were also blown out 45-14 by Arizona State in week two and 52-24 by Louisiana Tech just last week.
While much of the talk in the media and among fans about that summer recruitment, O’Brien downplayed that in his weekly press conference.
“No, not at all,” the coach said when asked if his team would be affected by that situation this week. “I believe as we sit here today that we have their attention on a very good Illinois football team and a tough game coming up in Champaign.”
O’Brien was asked at least four times about the whole recruiting situation with Illinois and he deftly skated around them all.
He may not have had any public statement for obvious reasons. And while it certainly isn’t the focus of the week, you can bet it will come up at some point within the team.
So if you thought all the sanctions meant you wouldn’t see another big Penn State football game for quite awhile, you are in for a treat. The first has come quickly and will be Saturday at Illinois.
NOTES - This is the 20th meeting between the two teams with Penn State leading the series 15-4…Bill Belton, Derek Day, Michael Zordich, Donovan Smith and Sean Stanley are listed as probable on the injury report…Penn State has outscored its opponents 35-0 in the first quarter.
Marty Valania covers football for nittanylionsden.com. Follow him @EastRecruiting on Twitter.