STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — James Franklin has felt the heat before, as recently as a few weeks ago when Penn State was stuck in its worst ever losing streak to start a season.
The seventh-year head coach hasn’t felt it quite like Illinois’ staff, which will be led by offensive coordinator Rod Smith when the Illini (2-5) visit Beaver Stadium on Saturday. Franklin is expecting a fired-up group after head coach Lovie Smith was let go on Sunday following four losing seasons.
“I think it has an impact,” Franklin said of Lovie Smith's departure. “I think there’s sometimes where a different voice sometimes can spur some energy.”
The Nittany Lions (3-5) haven’t needed one. They’ve generated their own with three straight wins and have shown promise for the future in the process.
Steadily, a handful of freshmen have risen to help out leading wideout Jahan Dotson and quarterback Sean Clifford on offense. Wideout Parker Washington, running back Keyvone Lee and tight end Brenton Strange have combined for 74 touches for 563 yards and four touchdowns over the last three weeks.
Meanwhile, Penn State’s defense has found its swagger. The Nittany Lions held Rutgers to just 83 rushing yards in a one-sided win and surrendered just 69 to spark a comeback win against Michigan State last week.
“Everyone’s been real resilient,” safety Jonathan Sutherland said. “We’ve shown up to practice every single day even when we were 0-5, just trying to get better and obviously sticking together and it’s paid dividends for us.”
Illinois has lost two games in a row. Its offense has been inconsistent and its defense has allowed more than 424 total yards each of the last two weeks.
Rod Smith, who’s in his third year with Illinois, was still reeling from his boss’s firing earlier in the week when he met with reporters.
“As the day and night goes by, the next day comes and it’s still raw,” Smith said. “At the same time, we still have to get our football team ready to play a very good football team in Penn State. It’s emotional and a rollercoaster for us, but we are professionals and we understand these things happen. We have a job to do, and that’s to be here for these kids.”
Illinois will also be without leading wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, who declared for the NFL draft on Thursday. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior had a year of eligibility remaining and finishes his Illini career with 55 catches for 931 yards and 12 touchdowns. He led the team with 22 catches for 297 yards and three touchdowns this season.
NO. 2 MAN
Washington isn’t a household name yet, but the freshman wideout has been a regular around Penn State’s facilities for a while, showing up to practices early and staying late.
The extra work has translated to the field, where Washington’s risen this season with 35 catches for 473 yards. Three of his six touchdown catches have come in the last two games and he’s made defenders look silly scoring them.
“He looks like a running back,” Franklin said. “His lower half is really built that way and then he’s got what I would characterize as not good ball skills, I think he has elite ball skills. And he’s a smart guy. We’re excited about his future.”
Illinois might have a special scouting report on Washington, however. His sister, Ashton, is the program’s director of high school relations.
LET IT SNOW
With a recruiting class to introduce, the Nittany Lions already had a busy Wednesday planned before nearly two feet of snow pounded State College into Thursday morning. As a result, the team practiced at noon rather than its typical 3 p.m. slot, but Franklin was looking forward to it.
“It may start out as a football practice and it may end as a snowball fight,” Franklin said. “As long as I don’t get hit in the face, I’m good.”
Saturday’s game will be the latest one ever played at Beaver Stadium, which has stood at its current location since 1960.
Before this season, Penn State had only played two home games in December, a win against Syracuse on Dec. 7, 1968, and a loss to Pitt on Dec. 1, 1979.