STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State's over it.
If there's any lingering bitterness against Illinois for the way Illini coaches recruited Nittany Lions in the wake of NCAA sanctions, head coach Bill O'Brien and his players certainly didn't voice it Tuesday.
The Nittany Lions (2-2) assert that they want to beat Illinois (2-2) on Saturday simply because they want to build on their solid performance last week in a 24-13 win over Temple and extend their two-game winning streak into Big Ten play.
"I think we were really mad about it when it happened," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said about Illinois recruiting. "We've gotten over it. It wasn't like (the Illini) were the only people who contacted us."
Sure, a player here or there might still harbor some ill feelings, just not Hill.
"As a football player, you use any type of motivation," the senior said. "Some guys might, but I won't."
As scheduling quirks go, the first Big Ten game in Penn State's new era of football pits the school against the only program in the Big Ten that took in a transfer from the Nittany Lions.
When the NCAA punished Penn State in July for its handling of the child sex abuse scandal, the governing body granted players exceptions to play elsewhere right away. The penalties included a four-year postseason ban and significant scholarship cuts.
Among the schools interested in Penn State's players was Illinois, which sent assistant coaches to the State College area to speak with potential transfers.
"It takes a lot to bother me, so I would tell you that, again, our players, myself, our staff — we're very focused on the task at hand, which is practice today," O'Brien said Tuesday before reciting a litany of tasks his team needed to accomplish before traveling to Champaign.
The topic of Illinois recruiting came up from reporters to O'Brien and his players several times Tuesday. Almost each time, they said they were focused on making a good impression in their Big Ten debuts.
"Get on a plane, go to Illinois, and hopefully we're prepared to play a great Illinois team," O'Brien said. "That's what our focus is."
In the end, Illinois got one transfer from the Nittany Lions, redshirt freshman offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki.
Illinois certainly wasn't alone in pursuing Penn State players. The most notable transfer was tailback Silas Redd, who went to Southern California. The Illini didn't break any rules, but linebacker and senior leader Michael Mauti was the most vocal player in questioning Illinois' approach.
"If you're from our conference and you're going to try and steal our players and then wish us well, then I got a serious problem with that," he said days later at Big Ten media days in Chicago in July.
Mauti wasn't made available this week by Penn State. His roommate, running back Michael Zordich, said the senior linebacker known for his on-field intensity wasn't more fired up than usual this week at practice.
Days after the sanctions were announced, Mauti and Zordich led a group of about two dozen players who re-affirmed their commitments to Penn State. In the end, more than 90 percent of the team stayed.
"If some people want to use it as motivation, they can use it as motivation," Zordich said about Illinois' recruiting. "As a team, we're overall just looking at (Saturday's game) as the Big Ten opener. This is what we've been working for."
Both O'Brien and Illinois coach Tim Beckman will be making their conference debuts this weekend. Beckman said Monday he didn't regret the team's recruiting actions, and called football a "game of opportunity."
However, he said, "I regret that it ended up being this much and it is still talked about, but it gave a young man an opportunity."
O'Brien said he understood the questions about whether the issue might motivate his players.
"I do," he said. "But at the same time, the biggest thing is that this is our first Big Ten game."
NOTES: Penn State should have its full complement of running backs available Saturday with Bill Belton (left ankle), Derek Day (left shoulder), Curtis Dukes (thigh) and Zordich (left knee bruise) all expected to be ready. DE Sean Stanley (back) and LT Donovan Smith (right ankle) area also listed as probable, while DE Pete Massaro (right shoulder) will sit out another week.
Associated Press writer David Mercer in Champaign, Ill., contributed to this report.
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