Not long after the NCAA dropped its hammer and sickle on the Penn State football program, State College got a shady visit from a crew dressed in Blue and Orange. Then Illinois head coach Tim Beckman and his merry band of henchmen showed up in our quaint little hamlet with the sole purpose of cherry picking some Nittany Lions. They made off with just one that day in late July 2012, little used lineman Ryan Nowicki, but set forth in motion a disgust that lives in infamy with us to this very day. Mike Mauti voiced his displeasure and back then, when he spoke, we listened and followed dutifully. A 35-7 romp that year on their turf, including a 90 yard pick-six by Mauti just before halftime, did little to un-tarnish their reputation. The damage had already been done and it went far beyond the realm of X's and O's. It reached deep into the gut and left a scar that may eventually be forgiven but will never be forgotten.
In no way shape or form are the Illinois Fighting Illini a rival of any kind. They are just a common conference foe. Nothing more, nothing less. That being said, they have found themselves weaved within our web of Big Ten history. Moments we will all cherish to our graves and ones we would rather soon forget but simply cannot. The Road to Redemption continues for the Nittany Lions as they face a Halloween showdown against a team that inconceivably beat us 16-14 a season ago. Just as it did with last week’s opponent, karma has already played a stiff hand in this one as well. With a little over a week left in preseason summer camp, Tim Beckman, the master of poach, was relieved of his duties as head coach. Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy quite frankly.
His replacement, on an interim basis, is Pennsylvania native (Sharon Hill, PA) Bill Cubit. A self-professed Penn State fan growing up, Cubit has been left with the task of cleaning up the mess Beckman left behind. He has proven to be a steady and calming hand amidst all the early season turmoil. Currently sitting at 4-3 on the year, Cubit has the Illini playing with confidence. They are led on offense by QB Wes Lunt, an Oklahoma State transfer. Lunt is a traditional drop back QB, something our weary defense will certainly be happy to see after five weeks straight chasing down duel threat runners. On the year, Lunt has a 58% completion average and has thrown for over 1,700 yards with 9 TD's and 3 INT's. His most lethal target is Geronimo Allison, a senior who has 40 receptions for 700 yards and 3 TD's. Leading rusher Josh Ferguson has been ruled out for this game as he continues to nurse a shoulder injury. In his absence, the Illini have struggled to find much of a running game at all and remain a one dimensional offense without him in the lineup.
The Illini defense is senior laden and as stingy as they come. Led by linebackers Dawuane Smoot and TJ Neal, they have shown very few weaknesses over the course of 2015. With right tackle Andrew Nelson expected to be out for Penn State this week, the Nittany Lion O-Line will have its hands full once again trying to keep Christian Hackenberg upright and healthy. Saquon Barkley and the rest of the running backs are going to have to step up their game if Penn State is going to find success on the offensive side of the ball.
Penn State is bruised, battered, and gasping for air after nine straight weeks of hard nose football. Without a break in sight, it all comes down to a matter of heart and grit. For the first time in two years, the proud and stoic Nittany Lion defense faced some tough questions of their own last week in Baltimore. With the game on the line, and perhaps the season in the balance, that defense rose to the occasion with a Lions pride. The scales were finally tipped in our favor.
While the Lions were on the road over the last two weeks, at home in Beaver Stadium, changes were being made. Gone is the grass that greatness once walked upon. The footprints of legends and the final years of a man known for his rolled up khakis were lifted away and replaced for the first time since the beginning of the magical 2005 season. At 6-2 and Bowl eligible, this edition of Penn State football has an opportunity to make some magic of its very own and it all begins on Halloween. Nittany Lions 31 Illinois 10.