Ignore the scandal for Illinois’ conference opener

The buzz surrounding this week’s Penn State versus Illinois game revolves around the decision by Illinois’ coaching staff to recruit the Nittany Lions’ players.

As a result, offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki chose to transfer to Illinois, and his reasoning doesn’t really matter.

Maybe he didn’t want to be involved in that post-scandal era, saw it as an opportunity to get more playing time elsewhere or just wanted a fresh start.

Tim Beckman saw it as an opportunity to better his team, and that’s what he did. Besides, Nowicki won’t even be playing in this game, so his transferring has no effect on the outcome of this season’s matchup.

What really matters is that this week marks the conference opener for two Big Ten teams that are looking to start on a high note.

Penn State and Illinois each finished their nonconference slates with 2-2 records — along with their fair share of injuries, which has not made those records any easier to interpret.

Injury reports so far this week point to each team getting some of its injured back, as running backs Bill Belton and Michael Zordich, along with defensive end Sean Stanley, are expected to be back for the Nittany Lions.

For Illinois, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will start for the second straight week after missing two games with an ankle injury, and offensive lineman Graham Pocic is expected to return after sitting out the last two games, also with an ankle injury.

Defensive backs Supo Sanni and Steve Hull, who have played very little this year, are also expected to return for the Illini, who have a secondary in need of help. As mentioned, the two team’s records are the same, but Illinois and Penn State are on very different trends.

Penn State dropped close games to Ohio, a potential BCS buster, and Virginia to start the season, while defeating Navy and Temple the last two weeks. In its 17-16 loss at Virginia, kicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals attempts that could very well have the Nittany Lions sitting at 3-1.

The Illini, on the other hand, dominated Western Michigan and FCS opponent Charleston Southern, but they were blown out by Arizona State and Louisiana Tech (another potential BCS buster). With the scandal, out went Joe Paterno and Penn State’s identity, which had been instilled in college football fans everywhere.

The new man strolling the Penn State sideline, Bill O’Brien, has NFL experience, and quarterback Matt McGloin is proof of that.

Through the first four games, McGloin has 1,006 yards passing, nine touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s 202 more yards and four fewer interceptions than all three Illinois quarterbacks combined this season.

Given that Illinois is 10th and Penn State is last in the Big Ten in rushing yards, quarterback play could prove to be the deciding factor, and McGloin’s experience so far this season gives him the leg up over whichever concoction of quarterbacks the Illini trot out this week.

A Big Ten opponent will be a welcomed sight to an Illinois front seven that has been run ragged by up-tempo offenses during nonconference play, but the Illinois offense hasn’t shown enough firepower to prove it can support its defense.

What happened during the offseason between the child sex abuse scandal and the Illini’s recruiting efforts, these two teams have a lot of bulletin-board material to get themselves fired up to play.

Just don’t think that’s the reason either team wants to win.

A victory to start conference play is enough in itself.

Dan is a senior in Media. He can be reached at welin1@dailyillini.com. Follow him on Twitter @WELINandDEALIN.

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