New era of Penn State football coming to Champaign

The Penn State team that rolls into town this weekend won’t be the same squad that faced the Illini last season or the year before or even decades prior.

For the first time in nearly 46 years, Joe Paterno won’t be patrolling the sidelines or manning the Penn State coaches box against Illinois.

“I love the history of this game,” Illini offensive line coach Luke Butkus said. “We have to know who we’re playing for — the guys that paved the way and did all the groundwork before us — and obviously Joe Paterno was one of those guys, and he did it for a long time. That program is so storied, and every time you think about it, you really think of that name.”

Last year, one of the most esteemed college football programs in the nation was brought to its knees in wake of charges of child sex abuse against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky amid reports that the school and athletic department attempted to cover the abuse up. He has since has been found guilty on 45 counts of criminal child sex abuse. The NCAA imposed a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban and a scholarship reduction, in addition to vacating all 112 of Paterno’s victories since 1998.

Paterno was fired November 2011 and passed away in January. His final game as head coach at Penn State was against Illinois, a 10-7 victory in Happy Valley last season.

“Growing up, you always heard about Joe Paterno,” senior offensive lineman and Pennsylvania native Tyler Sands said. “But obviously with the things that have happened, new coach there and that’s who we’re preparing for now. It won’t be a surprise or anything. We’re ready for them.”

Junior wide receiver Ryan Lankford’s father, Paul Lankford, played for Paterno at Penn State in the late ’70s and early ’80s before going on to play 10 seasons in the NFL.

Ryan Lankford said it’s been difficult for his father to watch his alma mater’s fall from grace.

“It’s such a rich history and then playing for Joe Paterno, he was a great coach, and they had a great staff there and something like this can really change his whole legacy,” Ryan Lankford said.

“Of course, it’s something that you don’t want him to be remembered for, but it’s hard for the people nowadays not to remember something like that, and it was a terrible thing that happened. My dad still stands beside his coach, he still remembers the great years that he had there.”

While the program certainly took a hit over the past year, the Nittany Lions still finished last season with a 9-4 record and retained most of its roster. After dropping its first two games of the season, Penn State enters Saturday’s game coming off two straight wins and is 15-4 against Illinois all-time.

“They’re tough,” Butkus said. “They always seem to have the tough, hard-nosed guys, not to say none of these others teams do, but they have a type of kid that they recruit there, and they’re just fighters.”

While the Illini will be the first team in the conference to get an up-close look at the new era of Penn State football under head coach Bill O’Brien, that won’t be the only storyline circulating Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

As part of the NCAA sanctions, any Penn State players who transferred were eligible to play immediately, and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany didn’t restrict interconference moves.

In July, Illinois made headlines for sending eight coaches to State College, Pa., to meet with players interested in transferring.

While Penn State players have said numerous schools contacted them, Illini coaches were spotted with Illinois gear at an airport in State College, drawing much of the spotlight.

Offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki transferred to Illinois in early August and was the lone Penn State player to transfer to a Big Ten school. Nowicki has not yet been made available to the media.

“I regret that it ended up being this much, and it’s still talked about, but it did give a young man his opportunity to make his decision on what he wanted to do,” Beckman said.

Several Penn State players took issue with other schools recruiting their teammates, and a few were vocal publicly on the issue.

“I guess over there they kind of made it a big deal, but we didn’t think to much of it,” Illinois offensive lineman Tyler Sands said. “When you’re a team, you develop a bond, you think you’re a family, and so you always want to protect that family. That’s just the instinct of a football team — you want to protect one another and stay together.”

Penn State players might be using the incident as bulletin-board material and motivation for Saturday’s game, but Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said that only gets you so far.

“That can amp you up during the week, but at the end of the day, it’s about executing. It’s about getting on the field,” Scheelhaase said. “I think after the first hit, the first series, I doubt we’ll be on the field, and they’ll be talking crap about what went on in July. I’m pretty sure they’ll be concerned about what’s going on on the field, as will we.”

Chad can be reached at thornbu1@dailyillini.com and @cthornburg10.