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Another holiday trip on tap for Penn State

DEREK LEVARSE
YorkDispatch

They couldn't afford to be picky last year.

Having just had their postseason ban lifted in September 2014, Penn State players were happy to go to any bowl game last winter. Even if the Bronx wasn't exactly the first locale that they dreamed of playing in growing up.

This time around, the Nittany Lions have a chance at heading somewhere a little more... traditional after becoming bowl-eligible with Saturday's 31-30 win over Maryland.

"Oh, very exciting," senior defensive tackle Anthony Zettel said. "I'd prefer we keep winning and make a nice, warm bowl."

But it won't be easy to move up the bowl game ladder.

On paper, the game against the Terps was the easiest remaining game on the schedule, with each opponent getting progressively harder each week.

The Lions host Illinois and then travel to Northwestern before finally hitting their bye week. They'll close out the regular season against Michigan for senior day and then heading to Michigan State for Thanksgiving weekend.

Odds are strong that Penn State will indeed end up somewhere warm after that. The Big Ten wouldn't send them back to to the Pinstripe Bowl for a second straight year and even a hypothetical 6-6 Lions team would almost certainly be snatched up before falling to the bottom rung Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.

"To get to experience it again with this group is awesome," senior captain Angelo Mangiro said.

The coach was a bit more pragmatic.

"We'll talk about it for maybe 30 seconds," James Franklin said. "And then we'll go back to (talking about being) 1-0 again each week."

Geno by the numbers

Eugene Lewis' game-winning touchdown catch against the Terps brought to light all sorts of strange stats related to the former Wyoming Valley Conference standout.

It was Lewis' first score of the year and the sixth of his career. And the first he caught in a game that wasn't a season opener or a season finale. He had previously found the end zone against Syracuse and Wisconsin (twice) in 2013 and then against UCF in Ireland and Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl in 2014.

Penn State has won all five games in which he has scored.

It also continued Lewis' knack for success in pro stadiums. He now has touchdowns in two NFL venues (the Giants'/Jets' MetLife Stadim and the Ravens' M&T Bank Stadium), one MLB park (Yankee Stadium) and even Croke Park in Dublin, which hosts soccer, rugby, gaelic football and hurling.

What's missing? A touchdown in Beaver Stadium.

Yes, as it turns out, Lewis has more touchdowns in Europe than he does in Pennsylvania as a college wideout. Go figure.

That means his last score in the Keystone State actually came with Wyoming Valley West. Penn State's coaches channeled some of his work with the Spartans earlier on Saturday by calling a gadget play designed just for him.

Christian Hackenberg quickly lateraled a ball back to Lewis, and the former quarterback was throwing all the way. Lewis delivered a spiral on target across the field to good friend Akeel Lynch, but his classmate dropped what would have been a big gain.

Lewis was not made available for interviews after the game. But Hackenberg liked what he saw on the throw.

"I thought he did a good job," grinned Hackenberg, who became Penn State's all-time leading passer on Saturday. "We'll capitalize on that. I liked the play. ... Definitely Geno's a really good athlete and you saw that today."

Up next

For the second straight week and for the third time this season, Penn State will be facing an opponent with a different head coach than it opened training camp with.

Illinois comes to Beaver Stadium Saturday without Lions nemesis Tim Beckman, who was abruptly fired in August based on the initial report of an internal investigation into his alleged mistreatment of players.

Instead it will be veteran coach Bill Cubit leading the Fighting Illini after being bumped up from offensive coordinator to interim coach.

Cubit, who previously was a head coach at Western Michigan, has the Illini (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) very much in contention for another trip to a bowl game.

After a surprising 4-1 start, Illinois has dropped two in a row to West Division favorites Iowa and Wisconsin, including a 24-13 loss to the Badgers in Champaign this weekend.

Penn State will likely just be happy to see a traditional drop-back quarterback once again in Wes Lunt, as the Lions were sliced up by Ohio State's J.T. Barrett and Maryland's Perry Hills in the last two weeks.

Kickoff will be at noon with ESPN2 carrying the broadcast.