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Illinois-Penn State game should have some drama

Bill O'Brien

Bill O'Brien

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The facts: 11 a.m., ESPN, 560-AM.

Updated: October 30, 2012 6:09AM

Even though both schools are downplaying Illinois’ effort to poach Penn State players during the offseason, don’t you believe it. That bizarre episode will be remembered by the Nittany Lions when the teams square off in a Big Ten opener Saturday.

‘‘We did everything under the rules,’’ Illini coach Tim Beckman said this week, adding he doesn’t regret sending eight assistants to State College, Pa., to talk with Penn State players who were thinking about transferring in the wake of NCAA sanctions.

‘‘Eight men out,’’ one Pennsylvania newspaper called it, borrowing the title of a book about the Black Sox scandal.

Beckman said he had talked out the situation with Nittany Lions coach Bill O’Brien at the Big Ten media gathering in July, but O’Brien said tersely: ‘‘I think I met him at the Big Ten media days, and that’s about it.’’

Added O’Brien, who wasn’t interested in revisiting the subject: ‘‘We’re focused on this game. We’re focused on our first Big Ten game on the road against a good Illinois team.’’

Off-limits to the media this week was Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti, who said in July: ‘‘If you’re from our conference and you’re going to try and steal our players and then wish us well, then I’ve got a serious problem with that.’’

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said he doesn’t expect the Nittany Lions to be breathing fire because of the poaching.

‘‘I doubt they’ll be talking crap about what went on in July,’’ Scheelhaase said. ‘‘They’ll be concerned about what’s going on on the field, as will we.’’

Bad blood or not, one thing is pretty clear: When the two wounded programs meet in Champaign, one will receive a healing victory; the other will get another kick in the pants.

Penn State (2-2) is trying to move away from the gut-wrenching sex scandal that has brought a program that stands seventh in all-time college football victories to its knees. The Nittany Lions’ talent base has been diminished, but they have beaten Navy and Temple the last two weeks after a pair of frustrating losses.

The Illini (2-2) are coming off an ugly 52-24 loss to Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs are a force and might be this year’s Boise State, but that disclaimer doesn’t mean much now.

Beyond the ridicule it is receiving for losing to Louisiana Tech and Arizona State by a combined 97-38, Illinois also is hurting physically. Scheelhaase (sprained ankle) is expected to play, but the Illini’s two best offensive linemen, Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton, are nursing knee injuries, and key receiver Darius Millines (shoulder) is questionable.

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