Players say Penn State faces must-win vs. Illinois
Coach Joe Paterno doesn't agree, but some of his players believe Penn State's Big Ten game today against Illinois (noon, Beaver Stadium) represents a must-win situation.
"We have a chip on our shoulder," sophomore wide receiver Devon Smith said. "We have to win this game."
Paterno's reaction to the must-win question was predictable. He opted to ease the pressure on his players, many of whom are starters for the first time.
"I don't think it's a must game in the sense that we either win it or else," he said.
But junior defensive Eric Latimore doesn't mind putting a heavy burden on his team's shoulders.
"We have to win out," he said. "If you want to get to a good bowl game or, possibly, win the Big Ten championship, this is definitely a must-win game to me, and I am pretty sure to all my teammates."
The facts indicate that Smith and Latimore may be correct.
Penn State (3-2, 0-1) has seven games remaining in the regular season and four are against teams ranked in one or both of the national polls.
Michigan and Michigan State, Nos. 18 and 17 in The Associated Press poll, and Northwestern, No. 25 in the USA Today rankings, come to Beaver Stadium later this season. Penn State visits No. 2 Ohio State on Nov. 13.
It's a difficult schedule. Penn State is the first team in BCS history to play three road games against bowl winners from the previous season (Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State).
Injuries and the slow development of some younger players make it even tougher.
Losing to Illinois today and/or at Minnesota on Oct. 23 would mean that Penn State must win three of four games against the ranked teams to avoid a disastrous season. Penn State has won fewer than nine only four times in 17 years since joining the Big Ten in 1993.
But recent games have shown that the Nittany Lions don't play well against good teams. They have lost to No. 1 Alabama and No. 15 Iowa, 24-3, after starting slowly in both games.
"I couldn't put a finger on it," redshirt sophomore linebacker Michael Mauti said. "It's not like we are coming out of the gate shy or timid. We are pumped up."
But perhaps they aren't revved up to a sufficient level.
"We need to make plays early and often, instead of playing on our heels," he said.
The situation prompted co-captains Brett Brackett and Ollie Ogbu, two of seven senior starters, to call a players meeting this week.
"This thing can go one of two ways," said Mauti, recalling what was said in the meeting. "We can fold our tents, or you know what• We can come together as a team and pull this thing in the right direction. It's not too late."
Smith, who tends to speak his mind more than most players, said the team needs to play with more intensity.
"I don't think we bring enough intensity when we are going against a tough team," he said. "I am a high-intensity person, and everybody has to have the same intensity."Additional Information:
Illinois at Penn State
12:01 p.m. today, Beaver Stadium, University Park
TV/radio: ESPN2/WEAE-AM (1250)
Favorite: Penn State by 8
Records: Illinois 2-2, 0-1 Big Ten; Penn State 3-2, 0-1
Last meeting: 2009, Penn State, 35-17
Series: Penn State leads, 14-3
Outlook: Illinois and Penn State have experienced similar starts to their seasons. Both teams defeated weak nonconference opponents but lost to two ranked BCS teams.
Illinois fell to No. 24 Missouri, 23-13, in its opener and to No. 2 Ohio State last week, 24-13, and it beat Southern Illinois, 35-3, and Northern Illinois, 28-22. Penn State beat Youngstown State, Kent State and Temple and lost to No. 1 Alabama and No. 15 Iowa on the road by scores of 24-3.
Penn State has won 36 of its past 40 games at Beaver Stadium, and Illinois never has won there. Of Penn State's 14 victories against Illinois, 12 have been by 11 or more points, including 63-10 in 2005.
Penn State running back Evan Royster needs 128 yards to become the school's all-time leading rusher, but he has had a strange season. He gained 187 against Temple but totaled 166 in the other four.
Penn State kicker Collin Wagner leads the nation with 11 field goals.
Illinois led Ohio State twice in its game last week and trailed,17-13, until the final two minutes. Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has completed 54.9 percent of his passes in his first four career starts, with three touchdown passes, four interceptions and 216 yards rushing (second on the team).
This is Illinois' first game in a hostile stadium, losing to Missouri in St. Louis and playing the other games in Champaign, Ill.
Coach Ron Zook, a former Steelers special teams coach and Florida head coach, is 23-41 in his sixth season at Illinois.