“Has Penn State finally found a hated Big Ten rival in Illinois?”
— Headline on Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News blog
CHAMPAIGN — It’s been clear since July this was coming.
Ever since the NCAA declared Penn State University football players free agents in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and since Illinois marched into State College looking like a well-armed infantry division hunting for rabbits, the Penn State football program had circled Saturday’s date as the day they could have their reckoning against “THOSE EVIL, HEARTLESS THIEVES WHO CAME TO STEAL OUR PLAYERS WHEN WE WERE AT OUR MOST VULNERABLE!”
Well, that day has nearly arrived. Penn State comes to Champaign for the Big Ten Conference opener Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN).
Penn State has no championship to play for, no bowl game to look forward to, and most people believe that after this season the school’s football program faces a very bleak future for the next few years. At least.
Harsh penalties handed down by the NCAA include drastic scholarship reductions, which figure to cripple a program that will be at an undeniable numbers disadvantage.
Because the NCAA didn’t wish to punish current players — or perhaps because the NCAA wanted to crack the door to further punish the school — players were told they could transfer and would be immediately eligible elsewhere.
So far, nine players have transferred to other schools and, if you count recruits, 18 players have disassociated themselves from the program including some who left for “personal reasons.”
But Penn State and new head coach Bill O’Brien are fueled by other motivations. Based on the venom expressed by senior Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti during the Big Ten media day gathering in July in Chicago, Illinois’ decision to come to State College to meet with potential transfers is considered an unforgivable breach of sportsmanship.
Illinois ended up accepting one transfer, offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki, a redshirt freshman who was born in Elgin, who knew Illini coaches and who contacted Illinois to let them know he wanted to leave Penn State.
Illinois was no doubt hoping to snag more than just Nowicki, which is why they arrived like storm troopers in their attempt, sending eight coaches toting Illini logo bags through the airport just as O’Brien was preparing to board his own flight.
Can you say “awkward?”
I don’t know exactly what went on in State College, but in describing it to the public two months ago, I suspect there was a good deal of exaggeration from a Penn State football program that was deeply hurt by the sanctions and that was desperately trying to circle the wagons to maintain some sense of team unity.
Penn State players made it sound like a coaching convention had set up shop in the parking lot outside the football complex. Players said they were being constantly contacted, chased and harassed. “Hounded,” is the word Mauti used.
Illini coach Tim Beckman, asked about it this week, said they were trying to provide an opportunity to players who wanted to look elsewhere. And he swears Illinois never went on campus.
Whatever. I just know that because Illinois was fingered as a culprit from within its own conference, the Penn State coaches and players have allowed the Illini to become the poster program for all things evil.
In Chicago, Mauti complained about a lack of ethics and said, “I know there’s a right way to do things and then there’s the other way.” There was anger in his voice and blood in his eyes.
Mauti declined to comment about Illinois after Penn State’s victory over Temple last week and has been made off-limits to the media this week.
Regardless of what was appropriate after the NCAA created these rules for transfers, Illinois brought some of this on itself.
Let’s just say a more subtle approach would have ruffled fewer feathers.
On Monday, Beckman said he spoke to O’Brien in Chicago when the incident first happened. But on Tuesday, during the Big Ten’s weekly teleconference, O’Brien seemed to scoff when asked if a conversation had taken place.
“Ah ... I think I met him at the Big Ten media day, that’s about it,” O’Brien said. Then he added, “We’re focused on this game, on the first Big Ten game on the road and that’s what we’re focused on right now.”
Obviously, other schools “recruited” Penn State players back in July and four of them landed at prominent programs. Running back Silas Redd, Penn State’s best player, is now at Southern California. Wide receiver Justin Brown is now starting at Oklahoma. Quarterback Rob Bolden is at LSU and kicker/punter Anthony Fera is on the Texas roster.
Nowicki, by the way, has not yet played for the Illini. He’s not listed on this week’s depth chart and it’s unlikely he’ll see action this season.
Expect one of the quickest, coolest handshakes in history Saturday between O’Brien and Beckman. And expect some inspired play from Mauti, the linebacker who wears No. 42 and leads the team in tackles.
Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said despite whatever bulletin board motivation Penn State might use, the game will be decided in conventional ways.
“After the first hit and the first series, I doubt they’ll be talking crap about what went on in July,” Scheelhaase said. “You build on certain things during the week, but it’s about getting on the field and getting things done. I expect them to be in that mindset.”