You know, I miss that old warrior, Big Chief Illiniwek, who was banished by the NCAA in 2005. Here’s an explanatory excerpt from my article of November 11, 2005:
The NCAA had some good news and some bad news for the University of Illinois today. The good news is that the university will be allowed to use its existing nicknames, “Illini” and “Fighting Illini,” which were deemed to be connected to the name of the state and thereby, not offensive. The bad news is that Chief Illiniwek, the mascot, must go. The penalty for keeping the big chief will be a prohibition on playing in post-season tournaments.
Well, that was then and this is now. The NCAA extortion was effective. Giving up post-season bowl games and basketball tournaments means the loss of big bucks for the athletic program. (Don’t let anyone ever tell you that it isn’t all about money.)
The Illiniwekless Illini have been alternately wreckless and feckless ever since the Big Chief was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs to toil among his other nameless, tribeless colleagues there. (The Illini tried to get tight end Tony Gonzalez for him, but the best the Chiefs would offer was one of Dick Vermeil’s game-worn coaching jockstraps.) Blocking for heap big Larry Johnson, Jr. is a thankless job (in more ways than one), but the Mighty Illiniwek has made no complaints. In this economy, a job is a job. He even tolerates the Chiefs’ version of the Florida State Tomahawk Chop, never once grousing about the warlike tribes from the Southeast Territories. Truly, Liney (as we call him here at the Turkey) is a bighearted brave, and a fearless leader of men. In The Cave on Saturday, we will drink a toast to the Big Chief with the best firewater we can find.
Don’t stop me. I’m on a roll.
The #15 Nittany Lions (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) travel to Champaign on Saturday to meet the Illiniwekless, feckless Illini (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten), who are attempting to recover from a crushing 30-0 loss to Ohio State. If you saw that game, you know that it wasn’t even that close. Meanwhile, the Lions have their own embarrassing loss from which to recover, one familiar to you all.
I could cry about the Iowa game some more here, but I come here to bury Iowa, not to praise them. I already praised them enough in my post-game thoughts, anyway. (Of course, that wasn’t enough for one particular Iowa fan, who all but demanded that I get down on my knees and blow him in whichever cornfield he calls home. Ain’t gonna happen.)
We have business to attend to here. The business of beating Illinois.
My pre-season prediction had the Nittany Lions prevailing over Iowa and losing on the road to Illinois. There were good reasons to believe in Illinois before this season started. Senior quarterback Juice Williams, now a well seasoned football player, is a threat both on the ground and in the air. He’s got some terrific receivers, led by Arrelious Benn, who has been Penn State’s nemesis in the past. But Illinois has underachieved this year. It’s either that or they just plain suck — and it has beginning to look more like the latter than the former.
The Illini started the season with a disappointing, 37-9 loss to the Missouri Tigers. They bounced back to beat their cupcake, Illinois State, 45-17, and then came the devastating shutout at the Horseshoe. In that debacle, Illinois produced only 170 total yards. They had to hide sharp objects from Juice Williams after the game, as he had one of his crappiest games ever. In the air, he was 13-25 for only 77 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. On the ground, he had 15 carries for 18 yards, with 16 yards coming on one particular run. Other than that, he was stuffed. Frankly, Williams has been completely ineffectual this year, in spite of having some pretty doggone good receivers.
Illinois ranks 110th in pass efficiency. Don’t expect that to improve with the Illinois offensive line playing as badly as PSU’s.
Iowa fans please note: Williams handed the game to Ohio State, who lost two fumbles but still won going away. All hail the mighty Buckeyes! I’m beating this thing to death, am I not?
We all know where the Nittany Lions’ weaknesses are. It pains me to say that the running game is still one of them. Last week, the passing game proved to be problematical, too. The running game and the passing game, both? So what I’m saying is that the whole offense sucks? Well, no, out of respect for the program and the players who are doing their best, I can only say that Penn State is offensively challenged, and I think that the offensive line is the key to the whole mess, with coaching following closely behind. On Tuesday, head coach Joe Paterno stated that if he had to make the decision then as to who would start at right tackle, it would be Nerraw McCormick, who was brought into the Iowa game for the ineffectual DeOn’Tae Pannell. They’re still shuffling the offensive line around two games into the Big Ten schedule, and that means that the offense is in a helluva jam. Daryll Clark will continue to see his pocket collapse, giving him scant time to throw. So, one of the keys will be to get Clark’s mind straightened out and another will be to make sure he has plays where he can dump the ball off quickly if he is hurried.
Both Clark and Williams had such rotten games last week that Williams texted Clark after the conclusion of the PSU-Iowa game, asking Clark to call him so he could commiserate with him. He knew exactly how Clark was feeling. Clark called and they commiserated. We’ll see which one was the best commiserator on Saturday.
Besides the Penn State offensive line, which is in there on every offensive down, this Turkey’s next worry is special teams. My God, do they ever suck! Something has to be done about the kickoff and punt coverage. Furthermore, with the dangerous Arrelious Benn running back kicks, Penn State needs to kick the ball high and deep. Collin Wagner just doesn’t seem to have the leg for that. Anthony Fera is a freshman, but he’s said to have a strong leg. Is it time to bring him in? The missed field goal last week wound up not being a factor in the game, but it sure could have been. Jeremy Boone does a great job, but even he is no match for a 270 lb lineman intent on blocking a punt after Nick Sukay forgot to block him.
Stalled drives, especially inside the red zone, are killers. In Penn State’s case, I attribute them to the offensive line and to coaching. There is nothing worse than watching a successful goal line stand by a cupcake opponent, when stubborn coaches could have easily beaten it with an outside play.
Right now, if you’ve read this far, you’re thinking that I’m describing two mediocre teams, implying that our objective should be to determine who sucks the worst. You’d almost be right. I don’t want to have to look at it that negatively, but what can we paint in a positive light at this point? Ahh, I’ve got it. I think that the Penn State front seven, even banged up, is in a position to win this game for the Nittany Lions, particularly if Clark gets his head together and learns how to get rid of the ball quickly and safely, and if special teams don’t give away points. Stupar should play. It will be necessary to keep a spy on Williams, who can be slippery, and who has beaten PSU teams in the past on the ground and in the air. Note that our secondary still has not been put to the test. If Williams breaks out of his slump, gets some support by his offensive line, and hits Benn deep, they’ll have their test right there and they better damn well pass it!
As for additional injuries, I just learned this evening that Devon Smith will be out with a concussion.
Unlike the beginning of the season, which I thought that Illinois might go places this year, I now think that Penn State is the better team. That ain’t sayin’ much, mind you, but one step at a time. I’m not going to be convinced that they are any good unless and until three things come together. You know what they are:
- The offensive line
- Special teams
- Actually playing football after halftime
That’s a tall order for this team, but let it be The Turkey Challenge. I’ll stop talking down about the Nittany Lions 2009 squad when they can put together one game with all three of those things corrected (and Eastern Illinois doesn’t damn well count!).
Meanwhile, we’ve reached the point where I make a damn fool out of myself by pulling a prediction straight out of the Turkey Cloaca. Yes, it’s time for the Fabulous, Fearless, Official Turkey Poop Prediction for Week 5. Thus far, this foulest of fowl has amassed a record of 3-1 straight up and 2-2 against the spread. For this game, the line opened at Penn State +1, but the gamblers were not convinced that Illinois was that good, so they jumped on Penn State, widening the spread to 7.5 at press time. Assuming that home field advantage is worth a field goal (even with the Orange-out), the “smart” money is saying that Penn State is over 10 points better than Illinois. Hmm. The over/under is 45, suggesting that gamblers think the final score will be something like 26-19. I think Penn State will win a close, sloppy game. It won’t be the weather’s fault this time. I don’t think Penn State has the wherewithal to score more than 24 points, even against the Illinois defense, and I think that Benn will have a career day, running back one kickoff for a TD and getting behind the PSU defense on a long pass for another TD. It will be a nail-biter when things settle down and defenses get tired in the second half. Expect some stalled drives and more frustrating shows of football incompetence (if not incontinence). However, I still think the Nittany Lions will pull out the win. Let’s say Penn State 23, Illinois 17.
(What I really hope is that they prove me wrong and knock the snot out of the Illini, but I’m committed to taking a wait-and-see attitude with these guys.)