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The Illini Freshman Guide to Big Ten Football: Penn State Nittany Lions

A primer to Illinois’ conference foes; a reference for the rest of us

NCAA Football: Illinois at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to The Champaign Room Freshman Guide to Big Ten Football! As we’re now a full 15 years from my fall semester on the fourth floor of Allen Hall (pre-air conditioning), it occurs to me that I have a wealth of familiarity with our Big Ten foes that our incoming freshmen simply haven’t accumulated yet. Over the next month, I’ll be hosting this crash course on each of our conference opponents: what’s their deal, how good are they, who do we need to watch out for, and why they suck. My work at SBNation’s Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire has exposed me to a lot of opposing fandom and information on the rest of our conference brethren.

Today’s subject is the...

Penn State Nittany Lions

Along with Ohio State, Penn State is one of just eight FBS programs with a total of over 900 wins. The others are Michigan, Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska. Penn State just kind of hung out in the middle of Pennsylvania for most of their early history, winning plenty of games to little acclaim due to not really being in a conference or playing many teams of note.

In 1950, they hired Brown head coach Rip Engle, who would bring Penn State consistently into the top 25 of the AP poll by the early ‘60’s. They also brought on his assistant Joe Paterno, who would succeed him as head coach and win 409 games over 46 seasons at the helm.

Paterno’s Nittany Lions were immediately a fixture in the top 10, winning national titles in 1982 and 1986. They remained independent until joining the Big Ten for the 1993 season, which is why their history doesn’t really involve Big Ten schools the way you’d think. They came close to a national title in 1994 after an infamous game in Champaign, then had four losing seasons in the five seasons between 2000-2004.

Coach Joe Paterno with Three Quarterback Hopefuls

2005 saw a resurgence. Penn State finished #3 in the nation, and they’d win at least 9 games every year until 2010. In 2011, Penn State was sitting at 8-1 when former longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was charged with many many many counts of crimes against children, which he committed in a systematic manner using Penn State football and his own charity as a lure. A subsequent report found that the powers that be in State College knew about it or had sufficient information or suspicion to act on it, including the man who ran the team, Joe Paterno.

Sandusky is in prison and Paterno passed away shortly after being fired. Penn State hired Bill O’Brien from the Patriots, who left after two winning seasons, then replaced him with James Franklin. Franklin’s claim to fame was two 9-win seasons at Vanderbilt, which is kind of like having two 9-win seasons at Illinois.

After a rough start, Franklin was able to elevate the talent at Penn State back to a high level, winning the Big Ten in 2016 and generally giving Ohio State the best challenge of any team in the league.

History vs Illinois

Conveniently for Penn State, they joined the Big Ten just after the end of Illinois’ last period of sustained success. Their first meeting was in Cleveland for some reason in 1959, and then Penn State missed the entirety of Pete Elliot’s peak as well as the whole Mike White and John Mackovic eras.

Then came 1994. Penn State had defeated Michigan and Ohio State en route to Memorial Stadium. Lou Tepper’s Illini took a 21-0 first quarter lead, which stood at 31-14 in the third quarter. As the Illini offense stalled, Penn State’s litany of first-rounders at offense finally got going, completing a 96-yard go-ahead drive with 57 seconds to go. It remains one of the biggest blown opportunities of my lifetime, if not the biggest as far as single games go.

Illinois beat Penn State at home en route to their last Big Ten title in 2001 before descending to hell and trailing 56-3 on Homecoming in 2005. Two years later, a defeat of Penn State was the first wake-up call that “maybe these 2007 Illini are pretty good!” I barely even remember the next two multi-score defeats, but the Illini earned their first road win over Penn State in 2010 by running them out of the stadium 33-13.

The 2011 game saw Derek Dimke’s game-tying field goal hurtle through the snow and deflect off the crossbar, denying Illinois of win #7 and giving Paterno the all-time record for coaching wins…right before Sandusky was charged. Isn’t that convenient?

Tim Beckman got mauled by the post-Paterno Nits, then lost a heartbreaker in double overtime, then outcoached James Franklin to post a 16-13 home victory in 2014 on Ryan Frain’s game-winning kick. The next three games saw the Illini lose by 39, 39 and 35 points before the epic 9OT masterpiece from last year.

Overall, Illinois (5 national championships, 15 conference titles) is 6-20 against Penn State (2 national championships, 4 conference titles), but have won 3 of the last 9.

Last Season

Penn State started out hot by beating Wisconsin on the road on the strength of a 3-0 turnover margin. A 28-20 win over Auburn pushed them to the AP #6. They eventually got as high as #4 after beating Indiana to move to 5-0.

The road game against Iowa proved pivotal, with star defensive tackle PJ Mustipher and quarterback Sean Clifford both going down and backup Ta’Quan Roberson being woefully unprepared. PSU blew a 20-10 lead to lose by 3. After the bye, a clearly-injured Clifford struggled against the Illini, helping contribute to that loss. Ultimately, Penn State would lose 6 of their last 8, including the Outback Bowl against Arkansas.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Arkansas at Penn State
Penn State ended last season with a 24-10 loss to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl.
Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

High expectations unraveled rather quickly. Part of it was the injuries, part of it was that their schedule was back-loaded with Ohio State, Michigan and a resurgent Michigan State among their last five games. Still, another part was Penn State’s curious inability to run the ball, averaging just 3.2 yards per attempt. The running backs combined for just 6 rushing touchdowns all year.

Coaching Staff & Identity

I’ve already touched on James Franklin’s credentials at Vanderbilt, but he was previously an offensive assistant under Ralph Friedgen, the Maryland coach that Maryland fired to kick off their Dark Ages. Franklin enters his 9th season as Penn State’s head coach with a 67-34 overall record and a 42-28 mark in conference play.

2022 Big Ten Conference Football Media Days Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Former Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Texas offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich returns for his second season, which by itself could very well mean a marked improvement. The first season running new schemes can, after all, be pretty rough. Yurcich is a spread offense guy who likes to maintain a nice run/pass balance, which did not happen last year because Penn State’s offensive line couldn’t open any holes. Yurcich’s system tends to be very quarterback-centric in terms of the numbers it produces.

Longtime defensive coordinator Brent Pry took the head job at Virginia Tech, so former Miami coach Manny Diaz is the new defensive coordinator. He’s been highly respected as a defensive coach for many years and is likely to run a one-gap scheme that will encourage playing fast and aggressively. He also might leave on a moment’s notice, perhaps in the middle of a game.

Dudes To Watch

Due to the nature of Mike Yurcich’s offense, if it’s going to be successful it will be because Sean Clifford posts big numbers through the air and is enough of a running threat to open up holes for the backs.

Outback Bowl - Arkansas v Penn State
Sean Clifford threw 31 touchdowns last year.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

If Keyvone Lee should falter at running back, five-star recruit Nick Singleton will be waiting in the wings to show his stuff. The most proven skill player is sophomore receiver Parker Washington.

On defense, Joey Porter Jr has been making noise at corner, but the big name on this defense is PJ Mustipher, who will wreak havoc if he can return to 100%

Season Prediction & Fan Expectations

There’s a fair amount of hype for Penn State this year. They open up the season at Purdue on a Thursday, and their only non-conference test is a road game in Alabama against an Auburn team wracked with instability.

The schedule is favorable in that their most difficult road game by a mile is Michigan; they have Ohio State and Michigan State at home. Penn State’s current place is as follows: if everything goes just right, they can knock off Ohio State and win the conference. Fans don’t expect a national title this year, but they’re certainly not ruling it out.

I’m seeing 9 or 10 wins depending on whether or not the offensive line can get it together.

Illinois Game Prediction

Once again, this matchup is only possible in the Big Ten title game. I think a healthier Penn State will be more of a challenge for Illinois, but again…their struggles running the ball are a multi-year trend, and that’s going to play right into Ryan Walters’ hands if it keeps up.

Typical Fan

In 2005, Penn State students bombarded the Ohio State band with so many projectiles, including balloons filled with urine, that the band did not make the trip two years later.


Or this guy:

Why They Suck

I’ve heard Chambana described as “the middle of nowhere.” Absolutely untrue. Take the highway, get off anywhere and there’s civilization. It’s sparse, but there’s towns and farms and cell phone reception. State College, PA is truly in the middle of nowhere, in a place I call Pennsyltucky. You’ll absolutely lose cell reception driving through the hills there.

They’ve never really belonged in the Big Ten because they’ve always considered themselves just a little too good for all this “football conference” nonsense. They tried to join the Big East when it formed, but they were too shitty at basketball, which was a problem for a basketball-centric conference.

The piss balloon incident lives on in Big Ten infamy. It’s a shame the crowd at Beaver Stadium, named after a Pennsylvania infantry commander best known for being wounded four times in the Civil War, chose the Auburn game to break the attendance record last year. They deserved for the record-breaker to be the Illini game.

Literally five people go to their men’s basketball games.

They lost their minds when Tim Beckman tried to recruit Penn State players who had been given the option to transfer after the Sandusky scandal. Illinois ended up with a tackle who never played a snap before transferring to Northern Arizona. He’s apparently Helen of Troy to them.

Joe Paterno is their Chief Illiniwek.

@WhityRemarks: The 2011 football game. Illinois started 6-0 and was sliding into obscurity (we would finish 0-6 and Zook would be fired). I don’t recall all the details from that game and I don’t care to go back and look, but I remember the rage I felt afterwards. I’m not one to believe in many conspiracy theories, but I fully believe the Big Ten went out of their way to give Joe his moment in the sun that day.

Jerry Sandusky was in the stands to watch Joe Paterno break the all-time wins record. Within a week Sandusky would be arrested for decades of buggering kids, Joe Paterno would be fired for ignoring it, and within 3 months Joe would be dead from cancer. Joe and half the PSU athletic department knew something was going on with Jerry Sandusky, possibly knew that charges were coming very soon.

Also, not mad at them, but mad at us for the 2006 and 2009 basketball games at home…

Matt Rejc: Back in the fall of 2011 I went off the grid with a few classmates of mine to visit a model sustainable community in Missouri that was out of cell range. It was very refreshing to disconnect from social media, and to get away from the bad six games of Ron Zook’s farewell season. But reality hit me hard when I got reception again: the first text I got was from a PSU friend of mine sent the day before saying only “ha suck it” in reference to PSU’s 10-7 win over the Illini in Happy Valley. Nothing quite like late Joe Pa-era Penn State energy to welcome me back to civilization.

Drew Pastorek: One of my dad’s best friends has literally lived in Illinois his entire life. He roots for two college teams — North Carolina basketball and Penn State football. He also bought me three shots of Fireball at my wedding and I spent half of my reception in the can. So, now when I think of Penn State football I also think of having the whiskey shits.

Thumpasaurus, again: The lovely people of State College drove the last mountain lions from Mount Nittany well over 100 years ago.