Penn State, Fighting Illini ready to duke it out

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By Laura Hettiger

By now, talk of the bye week has been exhausted, and the Fighting Illini football team is looking ahead to a trip to Happy Valley. Saturday night’s face off with Penn State will be the second road game of the year and the second time Illinois will face a ranked opponent this season.

Since a season opening loss to then-No. 6 Missouri, Illinois has been fending off naysayers who still argue the Big Ten is not the power conference most people think it is. As conference play picks up for each of the 11 member schools, there will be a lot riding on the Big Ten season.

Two ‘tough’ teams face off

Head coaches Ron Zook and Joe Paterno feel the Big Ten season opener will be a challenge for both of their teams. Sporting top-25 national rankings, the No. 12 Nittany Lions and No. 22 Fighting Illini have a lot to prove in front of their nationally televised audience.

“I’ve had a couple of (the players) tell me that this is why they came to Illinois: to have the opportunity to play in a game like this,” Zook said. “It’s the first Big Ten game for us this year; it’ll be a great environment; it’s on national television against a great opponent; and our guys are excited and looking forward to it. That’s what it’s all about.”

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Even with the heightened excitement level, the teams have not forgotten what is most important this week – preparation. Penn State is riding on a four-game winning streak, whereas the Illini are coming off of a bye week.

“We have a tough football team to play this week,” said Paterno in a press conference, who is now in his 43rd season of leading the Nittany Lions. “I think Illinois is a good, solid football team … They beat us last year and played really well.”

White it out

Every season, Penn State designates one game on its home schedule to be the “White Out” game – typically the toughest home game of the year. Although the Nittany Lions will host seven opponents at Beaver Stadium, the Illinois game was chosen for the annual event.

Whether the Illini are flattered or intimidated by the game’s title and prestige, the players hope to feed off the extra energy.

“You get chills almost; it’s going to be an exciting game,” quarterback Juice Williams said. “You’re going to get booed a lot, but you got to use that energy for your game. Just try to go out there, just ignore everything, ignore all the white, just try to go out there and win.”

To make the “White Out” stand out, PSU has asked all its fans, administration, cheerleaders, band members – virtually anyone who will be present – to wear a white shirt to represent their blue and white colors. Penn State hopes the sea of white will work against the Illini.

But the Orange and Blue are seeing it a different way.

“That will be a very hostile environment,” Zook said. “I guess they have a ‘White Out’ going on and all that stuff. But no, I think our guys, they enjoy going into an environment like that. As a player and as a coach, I enjoy going into those kinds of environments.”

Home sweet home

This will be the farthest away game the team will play during the regular season. But for some of the Illini players, Penn State is just a short drive away from their hometown.

Some of them were even recruited to Penn State but accepted an opportunity with the Illini instead.

“They recruited me out of high school; they were trying to get both of us, Derrick (Williams) and I, and I remember Derrick and I talking about going there, and they called it a package deal at the time,” said Will Davis, senior defensive lineman from Greenbelt, Md. “So, we were talking about going there and everything, but you know I just brushed it off and came here.”

Williams is a senior wide receiver for Penn State that is from Chester, Pa. In last year’s recruiting class, Zook was able to convince offensive linemen Corey Lewis and Tyler Sands, from Cresco and Boyertown, Pa., respectively, and Hubie Graham, a tight end from Scranton, Pa., to join the Illini.