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Hard to imagine Illinois will be inspired to play

It’s a matchup pitting a hot Penn State team that has a lot to play for, against an Illinois team that probably can’t wait to hurry up and get the season over with.

The Nittany Lions will host the Illini on Saturday at 5:30 as part of the Big Ten’s champions week games. The announcement was made Sunday afternoon following days of frustration and uncertainty about the week nine games.

Speaking of frustration and uncertainty, Illini coach Lovie Smith was fired Sunday afternoon after five disappointing seasons and a 17-39 record. He will not coach the game this week, and instead the Illini’s interim coach will be offensive coordinator Rod Smith.

So, the team that will visit Penn State this week not only comes in limping with a 2-5 record, it also is facing great adversity as a program in turmoil now looking for a coach.

It’s possible the Illini could be fired up about Lovie Smith getting fired and show up playing great this week, trying to win the game for him.

More likely, however, we could be seeing an Illini team that has nothing to play for, no reason to fight, no reason to battle and no reason to give much effort. Maybe the players on that team have an incredible amount of character and heart, but one has to wonder where they will find their motivation for this game after a bad season and bad sequence of events with their coach.

Penn State is a 15-point favorite, according to betonline.ag. It wouldn’t be a big surprise if PSU covers that number easily, coming out and playing an inspired game to keep their late-season surge going, while Illinois falls flat.

Penn State is riding a three-game winning streak and, if it can win a fourth in a row, would be well positioned to received a bowl invitation. That alone will be enough motivation for the Lions, who at this point would love the opportunity to finish the season with a five-game winning streak after the crushing disappointment of losing the first five games.

Receiver Jahan Dotson said after Saturday’s 39-24 win over Michigan State that he “absolutely” would want to play in a bowl game.

“I wouldn’t want any other thing than to play with my brothers. At the end of the day, you only get so many opportunities to suit up in the blue and white,” Dotson said.

As for Illinois, Smith is now out after failing to turn around the struggling program. The Illini started 0-3, won at Rutgers and Nebraska, then lost their final two games, including 28-10 at Northwestern on Saturday.

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“Lovie Smith led the Illinois football program with unquestioned integrity during his nearly five years of service,” Illinois AD Josh Whitman in a statement.

“I have tremendous respect for Coach Smith and will always be grateful to him for providing a steady, experienced hand at a time when our program required stability. His unshakeable leadership, never more needed than during this pandemic, will be forever remembered.

James Franklin expressed frustration throughout last week about not knowing who the Lions would be playing this week. The Big Ten did not keep everyone in the loop with what was going on, Franklin noted, leading to the frustration and uncertainty.

Franklin made it seem last week that he was under the impression Penn State might have to play on the road this week. But that didn’t come to pass as the Illini will visit Beaver Stadium.

“It hasn’t even been clearly defined from the Big 10 what that last week is going to look like,” Franklin said Tuesday.

“When that was decided (to play the week nine games), I don’t know if everybody kind of thought that the season was going to be like this,” he added.

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Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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