Penn State can end the season with four wins in a row when the Nittany Lions host Illinois as part of the Big Ten’s Championship Week schedule, a last chance for conference teams to play before bowl season.
Penn State (3-5) takes the field Saturday on the heels of wins over Michigan, Rutgers and Michigan State the past three weeks. A win Saturday night at Beaver Stadium could propel the Nittany Lions into a bowl game. They have turned things around after an 0-5 start.
It will be the latest game ever in a calendar year at Penn State. The previous record for a game played so late in the year at home was Dec. 7, 1968 against Syracuse.
“We had to play very differently,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said, “and it took us a little bit of time to find our rhythm.”
The Nittany Lions found some rhythm in last Saturday’s 39-24 win over the Spartans. They rallied from a 21-10 halftime deficit to win.
“We’ve played great second-half football, we’ve blown people out; we’ve had comebacks, we’ve had all different types of wins, and a lot of them. And over the last three weeks, we’ve gotten back to that identity,” Franklin said. “The last three weeks we have found ways to win, which is really what we’ve done for seven years.”
Penn State had success using two quarterbacks last week. Junior Sean Clifford threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another as part of his 48 rushing yards. Sophomore Will Levis completed all three passes he threw for 54 yards and also ran for a score.
“We’ve been saying for a while that we’ve got two quarterbacks that we want to use,” Franklin said. “I think we can do more of that. We want to be more balanced with how we’re using Will and we continue to talk about that, so I was glad to see that happen (Saturday). We need to do more of it.”
The Fighting Illini (2-5) come into central Pennsylvania with a new head coach after Lovie Smith was fired last Sunday following a loss to Northwestern. The acting head coach is former offensive coordinator Rod Smith, who inherits a team with two straight defeats and was 17-39 in Smith’s five-season tenure.
Rod Smith has to find a way to get Illinois ready to play after such major change in the program.
“A lot of emotions and mixed feelings going on, but at the same time preparing our guys to play a very good football team in Penn State. Trying to get back to normal and back to work for the week,” Smith said Monday.
“We will get through this together and we’re going to make the most of it. If we have one more ride together, we’re gonna ride,” Smith added. “We’re going to try to make practice fun like we always do. Basically you treat this like a bowl game, and you never know if you will make one or not. We will come out, prepare and attack this game and try to let the players have fun with it.”
–Field Level Media