STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) No school wants to begin conference play with two straight losses. In the Big Ten, that kind of start can sap a team’s confidence and send fans into panic mode.
Though it’s only early October, it’s not overkill to say Illinois’ visit Saturday to Penn State will go a long way in determining what paths the teams take the rest of the season. The Illini (2-2) and Nittany Lions (3-2) are both seeking their first conference win of the 2010.
“Both teams are 0-1 in the Big Ten, so it is one of those games with a lot riding on it,” Illinois coach Ron Zook said.
In Happy Valley, the die-hards aren’t too pleased with Penn State’s so-so start. Road losses to top-ranked Alabama and No. 17 Iowa by identical 24-3 scores have many blue-and-white fans feeling blue – even if most prognosticators had picked Penn State to lose those two games before the season started.
In his 45th season as head coach, Joe Paterno is massaging the collective ego of a young squad hampered by a spate of injuries. Get through this weekend and the Nittany Lions will have a bye week to rest up before the second half of their season starts Oct. 23 at Minnesota.
Of course, they would feel much better during the week coming off a win over the Illini – though Paterno stopped short of calling Saturday’s contest a “must-win” game.
“Obviously we’re in a situation where we need to go out and play well. Winning is, yeah, certainly very, very high on our priorities. But I don’t think it’s a ‘must’ game in the sense that we need to win it or else,” Paterno said. “No, it’s not that kind. I think we’re still in the developing stage.”
Especially on offense in the red zone. Penn State is last in the conference in converting opportunities inside the 20 at 12 of 18 with just six touchdowns and six field goals.
An uncharacteristically inconsistent running game is partly to blame, with the Nittany Lions averaging 138 yards per game, the second-lowest in the Big Ten. Tailback Evan Royster has been up and down, and an offensive line with three first-year starters remains a question mark, especially in short-yardage situations.
Freshman Rob Bolden continues his trial-by-fire training at quarterback. It doesn’t help, either, that freshman Kevin Haplea will likely make his first career start at tight end in place of fellow freshman Garry Gilliam, who is out for the year with a left knee injury.
The team just needs a little more time to work out the kinks, receiver Justin Brown said.
“I feel like we’re good at times, but then at times we make some mistakes. I guess we have a tendency to be a little inconsistent,” Brown said. “We definitely have to change that around this week.”
Saturday could be a big day for Royster, who is 128 yards shy of breaking Curt Warner’s school rushing record of 3,398 set in 1982. Illinois comes in allowing 130 rushing yards per game.
But the Illini don’t figure to be a defensive pushover. After finishing 2009 with the 96th worst scoring defense in the country (30.2 points), Illinois heads to Beaver Stadium ranked 29th at 18 points.
And Zook’s team brings the confidence of holding Ohio State’s high-powered offense to season-lows of 24 points and 290 yards in a closer-than-anticipated 24-13 loss last week.
Junior linebacker Martez Wilson has led the way with a team-high 34 tackles, a promising start for a once-heralded freshman who missed most of last season with a neck injury.
Wilson will be tasked to help slow Royster and keep the Nittany Lions in third-and-long situations.
“He is settling in and playing the way we all think he can play. I think he will get better and better,” Zook said. “As he gets comfortable, more and more he flies around.”
By Genaro C. Armas, AP Sports Writer
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