Illinois feeling good heading into first road test
A.J. Jenkins was a freshman the last time Illinois played at Penn State, four games into a career that had involved mainly home crowds of 50,000 or so and opponents like Eastern Illinois and Louisiana-Lafayette.
Welcome back to Happy Valley, A.J.
Beaver Stadium was packed with 109,000 fans that night in 2008, virtually all of them revved up and wearing white.
''It was crazy,'' Jenkins said this week, recalling the 38-24 loss to the Nittany Lions. ''That was, like, the loudest stadium I have ever been to.''
Older players such as Jenkins are sharing stories about the size of that crowd as Illinois (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) gets ready to play at Penn State (3-2, 0-1) on Saturday.
Considering this will be Illinois' first real road game of the season - after playing their season-opener against Missouri at a neutral site - you'd think some of those older guys might want to pipe down a little around their mostly younger teammates.
One other thing: Illinois has never won at Penn State. The Illini are 0-6 dating to 1993 - 0-7 if you include a loss in 1959 in a game played in Cleveland.
No need to worry, the Illini insist.
''To me, it is exciting, the fact we are going somewhere we have never won before,'' said coach Ron Zook, who is 0-2 at Penn State but has one win, in Champaign in 2007, over the Nittany Lions. ''All that does is make the percentages that much better that you're gonna win.
''If you go back and look at the last couple times we have been there,'' he added, ''we haven't played the (full) 60 minutes.''
That 2008 loss particularly frustrated Zook.
Illinois trailed 24-17 after a second-half field goal before giving up a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Illini pulled to 31-24 on one of Arrelious Benn's two touchdown catches only to see Penn State strike right back with a late TD pass.
That Illini team was less than a year removed from a surprise trip to the Rose Bowl but already on its way to a disappointing 5-7 season, one that set up last season's 3-9 disaster.
This team, Illinois players like to point out, is more confident and playing good defense (giving up 18 points a game, tied for fourth in the Big Ten). It is also run by a redshirt freshman quarterback who, even if the offense isn't clicking just yet, is already considered a leader by his teammates.
The quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, said he's heard all about the 2008 loss and the stadium. His father, Nate Creer, played at Beaver Stadium in the 1980s as an Iowa defensive back. But the quarterback said his dad couldn't offer much help to prepare him for the crowd. The fans held it down so the Nittany Lions' offense could operate while Creer and the Hawkeye defense were on the field, Scheelhaase said.
''Obviously, they'll probably be pretty loud when I'm on the field,'' he said.
Illinois safety Trulon Henry has family with experience playing at Penn State, too. Benn, the receiver who caught those TDs in 2008, is his brother.
But Henry joked this week that he'll look instead to his own experience, back to training camp and 95-degree days to get through a few hours in Happy Valley.
''That was a mental beatdown,'' he said.
He said games like the one against Penn State are a reason to play college football.
''You've got a great chance to go and play in front of a lot of people,'' Henry said. ''Even if they're booing you, it doesn't matter. It's still a golden opportunity.''