INSIDE SCOOP

Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

September 18, 2018 at 11:17 pm.

Nittany Lions return to Illinois as big favorites

Penn State’s last trip to Champaign, Ill. would be considered disastrous by today’s standards.

Then, a 36-yard field goal cut through a howling wind to send Penn State to its fifth loss in eight games and the Nittany Lions would finish James Franklin’s first season 6-6 with another loss a week later.

Now, expectations are higher than they were then and No. 10 Penn State (3-0) will enter its first Friday night Big Ten opener as four touchdown favorites against Illinois, a team the Nittany Lions have historically dominated.

That, coupled with the fact the Illini have had three coaches and have won just five conference games since they last beat Penn State, is not enough for Franklin to feel overly confident. He has too much respect for the coach he’ll face — Lovie Smith.

“Look at what he was able to do with the Chicago Bears,” Franklin said. “Three division titles, two NFC Championship game appearances, a Super Bowl appearance, AP Coach of the Year in 2005. And is the third winningest coach in Chicago Bears history. So obviously the guy’s won a lot of games and is a very, very good football coach.”

Smith’s squad could be getting a key piece back. Although backup quarterback M.J. Rivers II has played well when he’s been called on, starter AJ Bush Jr. could return from a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the team’s 25-19 loss to South Florida last week.

Penn State could get a quarterback back in the lineup as well. Backup Tommy Stevens — who’s actually been used more as a hybrid skill player in the last two seasons to compliment starter Trace McSorley — would add another dimension to Penn State’s already formidable offense if Franklin feels a need.

But the Nittany Lions have plenty of skill and speed to keep their Stevens package stashed away until the looming game against Ohio State.

“We’ve still got a lot more electrifying players,” receiver KJ Hamler said. “The young guys are really stepping up. We knew that before the season that we’ve got a lot of skill and speed on our team. Speed equals power so we just use it every play.”