Penn State football team appears healthy entering Big Ten opener Friday vs. Illinois

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
  • The Penn State football team appears healthy entering its Big Ten opener Friday vs. Illinois.
  • Quarterback Tommy Stevens and cornerback John Reid are both expected to be available.

Penn State is heading into its Big Ten opener as healthy as it has been all season.

Penn State quarterback Tommy Stevens should be available to play Friday against Illinois. AP FILE PHOTO

During his weekly press conference Tuesday, Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin said two key players who have missed most of, if not the entire season could be available Friday night against Illinois at Memorial Stadium.

Backup quarterback Tommy Stevens, who developed last season as a weapon versatile enough that the coaching staff created the Lion position solely for him, has missed the first three games this season with a foot injury. Cornerback John Reid, who started the opener against Appalachian State, missed the last two games trying to “knock off the rust” after missing all of last season with a knee injury.

While he didn’t directly admit either would play against the Fighting Illini, Franklin said he expected both would be available.

Asked directly about Stevens, Franklin first reiterated his long-held stance against discussing injuries. But, he ultimately shifted gears, indicating the junior could be close to returning.

“We expect to have all (the quarterbacks) available Friday,” he said. “I will share this with you: If we needed Tommy last week (against Kent State), we could have played Tommy last week. We were just probably being a little more cautious than we probably need to be.”

He later said Reid, an all-Big Ten pick in 2016, would also be available.

“We expect John back,” he said.

Both are listed as starters on Penn State’s depth chart, and both suited up for the Nittany Lions’ last two games, even though they didn’t play. In Stevens’ stead, freshman Sean Clifford has completed all four of his passes with two touchdowns, including a school record 95-yard strike to true freshman Daniel George. Freshman Donovan Johnson and sophomore Zech McPhearson have seen increased playing time with Reid out defensively.

Work to do: When the Nittany Lions and Illini face off Friday, it will mark the fourth of just seven games in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision this season that will be contested between two programs led by black head coaches.

Of the 129 head coaching jobs in the FBS, only 13 are held by black coaches. Franklin and Illinois head coach Lovie Smith are two of them, the only two in the Big Ten and two of just seven in Power 5 conferences.

“I’d love for us to get to a point where this isn’t really even a conversation anymore,” Franklin said. “Obviously, I don’t think we’re there yet.

“I remember looking back as an assistant when Tony Dungy and Lovie were playing against each other in the Super Bowl, and I thought, ‘This is going to have an impact.’ It did. I think it did, especially in the NFL. But I do think there is a lot of progress that needs to be made in college, and probably the NFL as well. At the end of the day, I think all that anybody wants is for people to have opportunities, whether that is color or whether that is women, whatever it may be and that, at the end of the day, the most qualified people get the job.”

Two such matchups occurred last week, when Syracuse’s Dino Babers and Florida State’s Willie Taggart met. This will be the second such meeting for Smith, whose Illini lost last week to Charlie Strong and South Florida.

In the zone: Penn State has been one of the best red-zone offenses in the nation this season.

The Nittany Lions scored on all 16 of their trips inside the opposing 20-yard line. Fifteen of those 16 trips ended in touchdowns.

Perhaps surprisingly, Franklin said the coaching staff focuses less on the number of touchdowns scored in the red zone and more on the chances Penn State gets to actually score those touchdowns.

“If you’re kicking field goals in the red zone that’s going to come back to get you beat at some point. So obviously we emphasize the touchdowns,” Franklin said. “But I think the other thing that’s probably just as important is red zone trips. That’s something that we spend a lot of time talking about as well. You want to get into the red zone as much as you possibly can. That’s probably even a stronger indicator of offensive success than anything. The more times you get to the red zone, good things are going to happen for your ball club.”