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Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: Illinois Edition

With Penn State taking on the Fighting Illini, we went straight to the source for an inside look on Illinois football.

Bradley Leeb-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Penn State opens its Big Ten slate Saturday in Champaign against an evenly-matched Illinois team (at least if Vegas is to be believed). As always, we reached out to the foremost authority on the Lions' opposition, and Robert over at A Lion Eye was more than forthcoming in offering plenty of insight. While Robert might not be as much fun as last week's guest, he's definitely more grounded in his expectations.

So thanks a ton, Robert, and remember to check out A Lion Eye all season long to stay up to date on Penn State's conference foe.

Black Shoe Diaries: Towards the end of his margin, it seemed most Illinois fans had grown exasperated with Ron Zook. What's the feeling about how Tim Beckman's handled his first season at the helm?

A Lion Eye: Restlessness. Mostly because we got destroyed by Arizona State and then, two weeks later, lost at home to Louisiana Tech by four touchdowns. Illini fans have a hair trigger - it doesn't take much for us to throw up our hands and say "here we go again". Lou Tepper drove us off a cliff and into an 18 game losing streak. Then Ron Turner took us to a BCS bowl but went 1-11 two seasons later. And then the Zooker took us to the Rose Bowl and then 3-9 two seasons later.

So Illini fans, I think, started the season all looking for the moment when they could already declare the Beckman era a failure, throw up their arms, and check in on basketball recruiting. For a lot of people, I think that moment happened last week. For me, well, I'm on record saying he gets four full years to build a program. Get his recruits in here, install systems and keep them (this is our fourth offensive scheme in five seasons), and finally build a program at Illinois.

BSD: In its two wins, Illinois has outscored its opponents by a 48-7 margin. And in two losses, they've been beat by an average of almost 20 points. What's the deal with the Jekyll and Hyde routine?

ALE: Those two wins were against Western Michigan (who looked surprisingly bad after a solid 2011 season) and Charleston Southern, an FCS team on a 15 game losing streak. And the losses came at Arizona State and at home to Louisiana Tech (who will likely go 11-1 this season). So it's simply been that we've beaten the teams we were supposed to beat but lost to the two good teams. Louisiana Tech is the best offense we'll face this season. If they can beat Texas A&M next month (the game is at LaTech), they have a chance to BCS crash. So incredibly fast and efficient.

BSD: It seemed like Nathan Scheelhaase entered the season as the entrenched starter at QB, but Reilly O'Tooley's has had more playing time, and has performed better thusfar. Which QB should Penn State prepare for Saturday--or will both play--and what are their respective strengths?

ALE: Scheelhaase had a solid start in the Western Michigan game, but he rolled his ankle in the third quarter. He didn't play in the Arizona State or Charleston Southern games, tried to come back last week, had two first quarter turnovers, and went back to the bench. I'm not sure his ankle will be 100% all season. Against LaTech, a slow linebacker ran him down from behind. He doesn't look healthy at all.

So we'll likely see a lot of Reilly O'Toole this fall. He's very accurate on the underneath routes, but is still just a true sophomore learning the ropes. He's OK in our read-option run game, but he's not a runner. Which means our read-option doesn't really have an option to it at all. And with our two senior offensive linemen with 60-some combined starts out with injuries, O'Toole simply has to pilot that offense behind what's likely the least experienced offensive line in FBS football. What's not to love?

Read after the jump to find out what Robert thinks about Tim Beckman's vulturing of the Penn State roster, how Penn State can have success offensively, and to get his prediction for the game.

BSD: Illinois's D struggled mightily against two teams with spread-type offenses in Arizona and Louisiana Tech. Under Bill O'Brien, Penn State's become a more vertical passing offense this year. Should the Lions expect to have success passing against the Illinois secondary?

ALE: Yes. And you're going to see a theme here - injuries. Our starting free safety has yet to play this season. Our starting strong safety missed the first game, returned for 3 or 4 plays in the Arizona State game before re-injuring his shoulder, and hasn't played since. Our starting corner is dragging one leg (but playing). Remember your injury issues last year? That's us this year. We're just not healthy. We were missing eight starters last week with two playing injured.

So you're facing a team with that lovely combination of injuries + not much depth + new schemes on both sides of the ball. We're kind of a trainwreck right now.

BSD: Tim Beckman was pretty unapologetic about trying to poach players from the Penn State roster, in a move that most college football fans, especially those in Happy Valley, see as particularly underhanded. Do Illini fans feel as dirty about their coach's actions as they should?

ALE: [in the interest of saving time, Robert directed me to a thorough take he provided for Off-Tackle Empire last month on the issue]

I think the main issue that most every Illini fan has is the misconception that Tim Beckman took his staff to Happy Valley to troll for players. Tim Beckman took his staff to Happy Valley to put the full court press on Ryan Nowicki, an offensive lineman that had let teams know he planned on transferring and reached out to Illinois (he was born in and has family in Illinois). Most obsessive Illini fans (like me) were aware from reports out of Arizona the night before (Nowicki is from Arizona) that Illinois was sending 6 coaches to see Nowicki in Pennsylvania and sending 2 coaches to see his parents in Arizona (similar to Lane Kiffin sending 6 coaches to meet with Silas Redd).

But getting off the plane in Happy Valley, they ran into Bill O'Brien at the airport (on his way to Bristol to appear on Mike and Mike, where he told ESPN that he ran into our coaches). From there, it took off. ESPN reported that O'Brien saw our coaches "while leaving State College". Matt Hayes of The Sporting News tweeted that our coaches were "in the parking lot" (he later retracted). Others said that O'Brien saw Beckman "outside the Lasch Building". Dick Vitale said we were "vultures" and "classless".

But really, to me, it was a bloodthirsty media looking for the SMU parking lot story. Our coaches met with Nowicki and "at least one other player" off campus. They let other players know they were available to meet. Given the some PSU players have claimed they were pursued by "50 schools", I don't think this is any different than anything most BCS programs were doing. Beckman's mistake? Running into O'Brien at the airport, which led to questions at Media Day the next day. Is it questionable for a Big Ten coaching staff to be in State College, off campus, letting players know they're "available to talk"? Maybe. But that's not the Illini fan's aggravation here. We're salty because of all the Twitsteria that our coaches were stalking players at their apartments and hanging out at the Lasch Building. There's simply not one credible report claiming any of that happened. We simply put an all out blitz on Nowicki and we reached out to any players on the "I'd be interested in transferring" list while we were there.

BSD: How do you see this one playing out?

ALE: If our two senior offensive linemen are still out - Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic - then I think this game is already over. We'd be left with three sophomores, a freshman, and a junior (with 3 games of experience) on the offensive line. Not one player with a full year of starting experience. I don't know of any team in the country that can win with that. So right now, I'm leaning Penn State by a touchdown. I might not think Tim Beckman didn anything wrong in chasing Nowicki, but Michael Mauti does. And that's probably all that matters.

Thanks again, Robert, and remember, everyone, to visit A Lion Eye for all your Fighting Illini needs all season long.