Smith’s Slant: The High Road Is Hard to Find
The story has in just two months time become a sort of legend in State College. After the NCAA sanctions were handed down in July, Illinois head coach Tim Beckman sent eight assistant coaches to Happy Valley to try to poach Penn State players. Unlike other schools, who sent a single assistant in case any players wanted to reach out to them, or simply waited to hear phone calls from players, Beckman actively had his staff showing up at the residence areas where the football players reside. And Beckman was reportedly the only Big Ten coach to attempt to take advantage of the sanctions in such a way.
The incident became a bit of a rallying cry for Penn State fans. Those who wanted to point out the flaws in NCAA president Mark Emmert's logic in disparaging Penn State for its culture found a convenient and relevant example of such an aggressive football culture. Beyond that, it was something of an unwritten rule that Big Ten coaches were not to cross that sort of a line.
So Beckman enters his first Big Ten game already a marked man. While Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has the history of success at an SEC school and a history of questionable recruiting practices both at his old jobs and in his newest one in Columbus, Beckman has become a villain almost overnight. He has created a rivalry in a conference filled with both natural and forced rivalries. This one is all too natural.
Beckman's Illini have struggled out of the gate, epitomized by the embarrassing blowout loss to Louisiana Tech last weekend. And despite this being a home game for Illinois, the Nittany Lions seem to have the upper hand coming into the game. Quarterback Matt McGloin is playing the best football of his life, wide receiver Allen Robinson has emerged as a stud, running back Bill Belton is returning from an ankle injury and the defense has put together several solid games in a row. The momentum is most certainly on the Penn State side.
The argument can easily be made that Penn State should be 4-0. The Ohio game four weeks ago essentially came down to a lucky bounce that went from an interception to a touchdown in the blink of an eye. The Virginia game the week after came from a historically bad field goal kicking performance by kicker Sam Ficken. And the two most recent wins were under control early in the first half.
The fact that the Nittany Lions enter this game 2-2 only increases the stakes. Penn State believes it should be a team with a winning record, and the only thing standing in its way is a vulnerable Illinois team.
A key this week will be seeing if Penn State's players can keep their heads on straight in the first true road test of the season. Illinois' fans will be prepared to disparage the players of the besmirched program at every turn. It will be a more volatile environment than what the Nittany Lions encountered at Virginia, that much is sure.
Add the hostile environment to the already charged emotions aimed toward Beckman's recruiting tactics, and you find a Penn State team in danger of playing out of control. The team is already averaging nine penalties per game. Such sloppy play kills drives and gives inferior opponents unnecessary opportunities. Penn State's emphasis needs to be on sound football.
The team has said the right things in the week leading up to the game. Head coach Bill O'Brien has essentially refused to specifically address any sort of feud between him and Beckman. McGloin has stated that the team is not even thinking about Illinois' role in the chaos on campus during the two week "free agency" period during the summer.
This is a good sign. McGloin's productivity has been greatly enhanced by his ability to reduce mistakes this season. Hopefully the team can follow his lead.
Beckman was most certainly in the wrong in the way he handled the situation in July. But that should not cause Penn State to lose its head on Saturday. Taking the high road should mean a victory.
Dan Smith is a senior majoring in Broadcast Journalism and is the Executive Editor of ComRadio. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.