Nittany Lions look to come roaring back

By Derek Barichello

No. 12 Penn State is on high alert heading into Saturday’s homecoming matchup with the Illini at Memorial Stadium.

Once set on cruise control heading into Michigan with an undefeated record and top-10 ranking, the Nittany Lions have now been thrown off course, thanks to the last second heroics of Michigan quarterback Chad Henne.

Wide receiver Mario Manningham caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Henne with no time left on the clock to give the Nittany Lions their first loss of the season, 27-25.

And if that was not bad enough, the Nittany Lions sat on a plane waiting to get out of Ann Arbor for hours. Head coach Joe Paterno said the team did not arrive in Happy Valley until 2:45 a.m., causing him to cancel practice.

“The airplane had computer troubles,” he said. “We sat in the plane for about three hours. When you get back that late, the staff and everybody else were a little bit tired. So we didn’t do anything yesterday mostly because of the fact we had such a tough time getting home.”

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It even gets worse for the Nittany Lions. Leading receiver Derrick Williams was injured for the season after suffering a broken arm in last Saturday’s contest. Williams led the team with 22 catches for 289 yards and a touchdown.

“You can’t lose a player the caliber of Derrick Williams without trying to figure out what you can do to offset the loss of a guy that can make the big plays as he can,” Paterno said. “We have some other fine young players, and we are going to have to plug them in and go from there.”

Mesh all of last weekend’s woes together with having a tough time on the road thus far, sneaking by Northwestern 34-29 and losing to Michigan, and what is left standing is a concerned head coach.

“If we go out there and are not focused and make mistakes and turn the ball over, we will get licked,” Paterno said.

What he is concerned most about is the energy level of his team.

“We have to be careful that we don’t work them too hard in practice,” he said. “We have played a lot of tough games in the last four or five weeks, and I have to be careful that, as I said earlier, we are not tired. Illinois certainly isn’t going to be tired.”

But Paterno is not going to panic. He believes his players will be ready for Saturday’s game.

“You are always concerned, but am I overly concerned? No, I am not overly concerned,” Paterno said. “Hopefully, we can stay focused as we have all year and go out there and play as well as we can and not make a lot of mistakes.”

One positive that can be drawn from the Michigan game was another strong performance by standout quarterback Michael Robinson. Robinson has thrown for 1,347 yards this season and has thrown for nine touchdowns, causing the concern this time on the other side of the ball.

“He is a big, old guy that can run and throw,” head coach Ron Zook said. “He’s a real good player. He’s big, strong and fast. He makes intelligent decisions. He’s smart and knows what he is doing.”

Robinson showed he knew what he was doing on Penn State’s final drive against Michigan, leading them 81 yards downfield without a timeout and capping it off with a three-yard run with 33 seconds left in the game.

“That was a great effort by Mike,” Paterno said. “I think he took that football team and took them down the field.”

The Illini’s rushing defense, which gives up an average of 227 yards on the ground, will have their hands full trying to stop a Nittany Lions rushing offense that ranks fourth in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions are averaging 203 yards per game behind Robinson and running back Tony Hunt.

On the other side of the ball, Penn State’s defense has been stifling. Led by linebackers Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor, considered among the best in the nation, the Nittany Lions rank second in the Big Ten in scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense, only to Ohio State, causing praise from Illini offensive lineman JJ Simmons.

“Their ends are pretty good just like everybody has been talking about from the preseason,” Simmons said. “They get up the field really well. They are quick guys. Their defense swarms to the ball and their linebackers are pretty good too. I remember reading about them in ESPN the Magazine, and they’re the truth.”

One advantage in the Illini’s favor is that they had an extra week to prepare for that swarming defense. Paterno said he expects the Illini to throw in an extra wrinkle.

Whether or not the bye week combined with Penn State’s recent woes can lead the Illini past Penn State, Zook said they will have to wait until Saturday to find out.

“You know, I’m not going to say anything about that,” Zook said. “But there is no question when you look at teams coming off their bye week and look at the image they play with. They are refreshed. You hate to get a team that is coming off an open date. They were faster, and they are a completely different team.”