Big Ten opener promises to be formidable test

By Daniel Johnson

If Illinois had felt it needed a gauge where the team stands, it’s coming Saturday, and in the ensuing weeks with the start of Big Ten Conference play.

While a season-opening loss to Missouri had the feel of a conference game, No. 20 Illinois still had half of the stadium on its side. When the Illini travel to State College, Pa., they will have no such luxury.

“It’s definitely going to be one of the louder atmospheres you’ll play in,” tight end and Scranton, Pa., native Hubie Graham said. “It’s going to loud and crazy, fans aren’t going to be very friendly, but you’ll get that going into any college stadium.”

The players said the game will likely house a noisier environment to play in than the Edward Jones Dome, though Beaver Stadium is an open-air stadium. And if the sometimes deafening crowd from the Aug. 30 game is any indicator, both sides of the ball, especially offensive signal calling, will be dealing with the additional distraction.

“This game’s going to affect our offense more,” linebacker Martez Wilson said. “They’ve gotta do more preparation, as far as staying focused (and) not letting the crowd bother them.”

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Although No. 6 Missouri is arguably, at least in the polls, better than No. 12 Penn State, the Illini are expecting a very different game from the Nittany Lions.

“They’re a great opponent, but they’re a little different from Missouri,” linebacker Brit Miller said. “They’re more of a physical team, more traditional when it comes to power and lead, you know, try and big boy you. That’s the kind of ball we play in the Big Ten, that’s what we look forward to every year, that’s why we get the biggest and the baddest. They’re going to try to run the ball right at us and we’re going to try to stop them.”

Illinois’ last tussle with Penn State was a 27-20 boom, its first in a run that propelled the team to the Rose Bowl. However, its last game in Beaver Stadium was a 26-12 bust. Unfortunately for the Illini, the aforementioned crowd won’t be the only thing working against them.

“(Last year) we were in the backyard, you don’t have the crowd behind you this time, the momentum jumper,” Juice Williams said. “Plus, they’re going to be looking for revenge after last year, so, it’s going to be extremely tough to go out there.”

The team knows what is ahead, and given its history last year, is glad to be at a familiar record. The 2008 campaign is similar to the 2007 so far: a loss to Missouri and then wins over teams that the Illini should beat, albeit close at times.

“I think we’re exactly the same,” Miller said. “Record-wise, we played some teams that we didn’t play as great as we could have, and didn’t finish them when we could have, reminiscent of the Western Illinois game (in 2007). We did win, but we could have scored a lot more, we could have stopped a lot more.”

And while the team may still be finding its bearings, Saturday’s game on the national stage, with the ubiquitous white and doubters bearing down, to bring it back to prominence.

“If you win this game, you’re America’s darlings again and you’re back in the national spotlight,” Miller said. “If you lose it, you’re climbing and fighting trying to get the next one.”