Homecoming at Penn State should be a treat for the alumni. However, the way the Nittany Lions have been playing thus far this year, one has to wonder whether they will be humiliated on their home field, leaving with egg on their face and t.p. in their trees. Will the coach and four turn into a pumpkin and rats at high noon? Or will the boys get things back ungetrackt? We’ll see. Trick or treat? (I know, I know, it’s too early for the Hallowe’en metaphor, but work with me here, folks!)
On Saturday, the Fighting Illini (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) face the Nittany Lions (3-2, 0-1). Illinois is coming off a home loss to Ohio State, 24-13. Of course, as you know unless you’ve been in Underwater Demolition Team training for the past week or two, Penn State lost to Iowa, 24-3.
“However, if these guys should happen to stop believing that they can win and they actually do lose to Illinois, it sets the stage for a season record no better than a barely bowl eligible 6-6.” —TNT
“Trick or treat?” is not the only question that needs to be answered about these Nittany Lions. As yet, they have not coalesced into a characterizable entity. We know where they are weak, which is to varying degrees everywhere but kicking field goals. We know they have some talented individuals, although not as talented as many prior teams. We know that they lack leadership, which is why they are playing like a collection of modestly talented individuals instead of a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts.
Many Chicken Littles out there are writing this game off as a loss. It is tempting to say that the thus far impotent Penn State offense will not improve beyond the red zone ineptitude we’ve seen from it thus far. It is further tempting to say that the mediocre defensive front seven will continue to be tentative and semi-ineffectual for the rest of the season, giving up a few touchdowns per game.
Well, this turkey is not a chicken. The sky isn’t falling. Some years PSU fields good teams; some years they’re mediocre. This team is the latter. That doesn’t mean they are going to necessarily lose the rest of their games. They’re good enough to beat the Hoosiers, anyhow. My position is that if they lose this game to Illinois, their fragile, young, leaderless little egos will take a severe hit that will lead to a putrid end result. At the moment, I’m counting this game as a snap-back win when I predict the ultimate 2010 regular season record to be 7-5. I’m anticipating losses to Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State. However, if these guys should happen to stop believing that they can win and they actually do lose to Illinois, it sets the stage for a season record no better than a barely bowl eligible 6-6. A loss to Northwestern or Minnesota would drop that to 5-7. Aaaaargh! They have to win this game!
On paper, both resemble middle of the pack Big Ten squads who will lose to the upper echelon teams and will beat the dead meat. What we have here is a big battle of the mediocre, with the big advantage going to Penn State for playing on its home field. When you peruse the various blogs, zines, message boards, newspaper sites, and bar rooms, you’ll find that even Penn State partisans are split as to which team wins the trophy for this game, a highly desirable paint-by-the-numbers velvet painting of Ron Zook shaking hands with Joe Paterno at mid-field, painted by Chief Illiniwek himself at the Peoria Nation Assisted Living Centre for Tribal Elders in Happy Hunting Ground, OK.
It is certainly conceivable that the Penn State running game could get back in gear against the young Illini defense. This turkey would love to see some more creative opening up of the passing attack, too. On the other hand, the Penn State defense is mediocre, which Illinois’ Mikel LeShoure can exploit with a 100 yard game. The second leading rusher is quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who tends to look briefly for passing targets and then take off running. However, the Illinois pass offense is hampered by Scheelhaase, as well as a dearth of talented wide receivers. Their tight end situation is sad, too. Our linebackers won’t be severely taxed in pass coverage, which is a break for them because they pretty much suck at it. The secondary isn’t all that good and it has suffered significant attrition with the benching of Derrick Thomas for godknowswhat. They could give up a couple of long plays if they have their heads up their asses.
(You know how much I love that great Sandusky legacy, the soft zone. It might be necessary for this collection of mediocre DBs, but someday—SOMEDAY!—I’d like to see a more aggressive pass defense, damnit!)
The Nittany Lions must get off to a good start and avoid playing catch-up. So far, they haven’t shown that they can, unless we’re talking about Kent State. I don’t want to talk about Kent State. They also must capitalize on more of their trips to the red zone than not, and get six points, not three, more often than not. Wishful thinking? You bet!
Weather will not be a factor in this game. The forecast is “sunny and delightful” with a high of 70. Damn, don’t I wish I were there. Being a noon start, the student section at Beaver Stadium will be slow to fill up, but I hope to hell it does fill up. I tend to be an embarrassed turkey when the students stay home sleeping off their hangovers.
I think I’ll wrap this up now with the moment you’ve all been awaiting with bated anticipation: the Official Turkey Poop Prediction! But first, let me just say that those of you who attend homecoming will have a great treat in store as you drive through the Pennsylvania mountains in their fall splendor. I wish I were there. But I digress. Gambling lines favor Penn State by 8 with an over/under of 42. This suggests a final score of 25-17. I’m counting on catching the Illini napping with an early TD and I’m also counting on Collin Wagner to make three of four field goals. Add one late touchdown to that and we’ll be right about where I want to be. Take the “under” and take the Illini+8. Penn State 23, Illinois 16.