By: Thomas Frank Carr
How do you follow up a performance like a 63-14 drubbing on national television by the No. 4 team in the nation? Hopefully with a better one.
The Nittany Lions are looking to roar back from an embarrassing defeat last week at the hands of Ohio State with a noon game versus Illinois this Saturday. Illinois is coming off a lopsided loss of their own- a 42-3 loss to Michigan State.
One positive note for Penn State fans is that it could have been much worse. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is fine after injuring his shoulder in the loss to Ohio State. Head Coach Bill O’Brien says that Hackenberg is full-go in practice.
“Christian Hackenberg is fine. He practiced yesterday. He’ll be ready to go. He’s good to go as we sit here today.”
One problem that probably won’t be resolved as quickly is on defense. The Nittany Lions defense this year is allowing nearly 30 points a game and 160 yards rushing per contest. That is a troublesome combination to put with a young and learning offense led by a freshman quarterback. O’Brien says that it’s not just about players performing on the field,
“I think there are some individual players who are playing better, and I think at the end of the day it comes down to a combination of coaching and playing. So I think that, if we can put them in better positions to make plays, that will help, and I think guys have to go out there and make plays. I think any time you give up yardage like that and points like that, there are some communication issues. They have to study film better and work harder at what those communications issues might be, like simplifying how you communicate.”
Simplicity was a key takeaway for the defense after watching the game film of Saturday. He would like his players to not think so much on the field.
“I think what we have to do is make sure we coach these guys and that we simplify these things so that these guys can go out and play. We have a lot of good players on both sides of the ball, but I think we need to let them go play.”
It’s going to be another tough test against another veteran quarterback this week. Nate Scheelhaase and the fighting Illini won’t make it an easier on the Penn State defense. Scheelhasse is fourth in the Big 10 in passing yards per game with 235 yards per game and 12 touchdowns. The Illini also are the sixth best scoring offense in the Big 10, scoring 30 points per game. O’Brien thinks that the senior quarterback has matured in a new system,
“I put him in this category that a lot of guys you know, last year was my first year in the league, and these guys are really improved players. Nate is one of those guys. He’s a guy that’s improved his throwing ability. He’s got better command of the offense. He’s doing a great job with Coach Cubit’s offense. So he’s a much improved player, and he’s a guy that’s a big challenge for us on Saturday.”
One change that has gone under the radar so far but now has been brought forward is the change in position of Adrian Amos. He started getting reps at cornerback during the Michigan game and has progressed to the point where coach O’Brien has said that he’ll play cornerback going forward.
“I think Adrian right now is best suited to play corner. He’s a bigger corner, he’s athletic, he’s a good run defender at corner. I just think right now, I’m not saying that will be the way it is for the rest of his career, but I think right now he’s better suited to lay corner for what we’re trying to do.”
By all accounts this is a winnable game for Penn State and a great way for the Nittany Lions get their confidence back heading into the last month of the season.