Penn State relaxed, Illini under pressure
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Getting ready for Saturday's game at Illinois, a relaxed Penn State coach James Franklin talked this week about his top-ranked run defense. He discussed how close he believes his offense is to being the balanced attack he wants.
And for several minutes one afternoon, he also talked with reporters about what movies they'd recommend.
Franklin's Nittany Lions have six wins in the bag and a date Saturday with an Illini team that's lost two straight. Accustomed to scandal and NCAA sanctions dominating many discussions about Penn State football, relaxing and staying focused on the game has become easier this season for the Nittany Lions (6-4, 2-4 Big Ten), he said.
''It's no different than all of us. The more you go through it, the better you get at it,'' Franklin said. ''And let's be honest, those guys over the last three years, they've heard a lot of stuff.''
Six-hundred miles west at Illinois (4-6, 1-5), the mood was far different. The Illini have just two fewer wins than the Nittany Lions, but as they try to get to six and a bowl, the pressure is ratcheting up on third-year coach Tim Beckman.
''This program's not about the media, it's not about me,'' Beckman said when asked about the team tuning out fan and media discussion about his future. ''You can bash or do whatever you've got to do. But that ain't helping an 18- to 21-year- old person. Are they trying? Heck yeah, they're trying.''
Some things to watch on what's forecast to be a cool, rainy Saturday in Champaign:
RUNNING LIONS: Illinois has made a habit of giving up big rushing games. Opponents are averaging a Big Ten-worst 266.9 yards a game on the ground. And Penn State's backs have found their game just in time for the Illini.
Akeel Lynch had a career-high 130 yards on 18 carries in last week's win over Temple and Bill Belton had 92 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
ILLINI RUNNING: Illinois has talked since quarterback Wes Lunt's return from a broken leg about the need to run effectively to take the pressure off of him, but statistics argue against that happening Saturday.
The Illini run for 104.6 yards a game, next to last in the conference, and top runner Josh Ferguson averages just 58.1 yards.
And Penn State has the NCAA's top-ranked run defense, giving up 83.1 yards a game.
LUNT'S PERFORMANCE: The Illinois offense is about as good or bad as Lunt most weeks, and in his return last week against Iowa, he struggled. The redshirt sophomore was 14-25 for 102 yards and a touchdown.
Beckman expects better Saturday.
''Sure, no question,'' he said. ''You put a lot of that on Wes' shoulders, but there was a lot of dropped balls. Our wide receivers were not mentally focused for that football game.''
HACKENBERG PRESSURE: Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg is still among the top-rated passers in the Big Ten, but his recent production has fallen. He's averaging 152 yards a game in the Nittany Lions' last three games, including 112 against Temple.
Franklin, though, defends his quarterback.
''For a good portion of the season, there was a lot on his shoulders,'' Franklin said. ''We had no running game at this point. It was all passing game.''
HISTORY: Illinois and Penn State have only played each other 21 times. But recent seasons have added some kick to a budding rivalry.
Beckman angered Penn State players and fans in 2012 by sending assistant coaches to look for Nittany Lions who wanted out during the Jerry Sandusky scandal. And last season's hard-fought game at Penn State went to overtime before Penn State won 24-17.