There's one word that really bothers Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus. Fluke. He knows it's out there. The skeptics point to a five-game home stand to open the season as the big reason why the Illini enjoyed their best start in 60 years. But when the Illini stepped up in weight class, hit the road and lost their last two games, the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately crowd predicted a five-game losing streak.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There's one word that really bothers Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus.


Fluke.


He knows it's out there. The skeptics point to a five-game home stand to open the season as the big reason why the Illini enjoyed their best start in 60 years. But when the Illini stepped up in weight class, hit the road and lost their last two games, the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately crowd predicted a five-game losing streak.


"I don't want to be posted as a pretender,'' Mercilus said. "That's not my thing. I want to show that we can actually play. They're having doubts in their minds, especially after we've lost two straight games. This week, we have to go ahead and take one.''


There's the feeling the season is on the brink.


It doesn't get any easier when Illinois plays at No. 21 Penn State Saturday. Although the Illini won here by 20 points last season for their first victory in Happy Valley in seven tries, Penn State regained its footing under legendary coach Joe Paterno by winning six straight games following a loss to Alabama in week two.


Paterno, 84, had to delegate much of his duties this season because of his health, but the Nittany Lions won their first four Big Ten games for the fifth time since joining league play in 1993. Meanwhile, public opinion doesn't favor Illini coach Ron Zook. In his seventh year with the Illini, Zook finds it harder to please the Illini crowd, even though the Illinois is bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1992.


"If they're jumping off the bandwagon, they weren't really on the bandwagon,'' he said.


Precisely. The fan base already has its mind made up on Zook. If this season spirals out of control, first-year Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas would be forced to make tough choices. Depending on how the Illini finish, Thomas will decide to:


A) Extend Zook's contract.


B) Let Zook head into the final two years of a contract that pays him $1.75 million annually.


C) Make a coaching change.


The game against Penn State is the first of three against top 25 teams for the Illini.


After averaging 34.6 points in the first six games, Illinois failed to score in the first three quarters in losses to Ohio State and Purdue. Illinois will lean on senior running back Jason Ford, Zook said, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase may hand over a few snaps to freshman Reilly O'Toole. Receiver Darius Millines is expected to return after missing four games with a foot injury.


"Sometimes our best players have to make plays when we need it,'' Scheelhaase said. "It might not be the perfect defense we wanted or the exact look. Sometimes, we have to make plays. We did a better job in the second half (at Purdue). We've got to do a better job early in the game.''


The game pits two of the nation's best defenses. Penn State is No. 8 nationally in total defense. Illinois is No. 10.


"We're disappointed in ourselves,'' Illini linebacker Jonathan Brown said. "That 6-2 is a great record. We had a chance to be 8-0. In the locker room, the feeling is we have to go out and play.  I think it comes down to who is the toughest defense.''


Penn State sophomore running back Silas Redd rushed for a career-high 164 yards against Northwestern Saturday, and he leads the Big Ten with 869 yards rushing. Redd surpassed 100 yards rushing in four consecutive games. With quarterback Matt McGloin taking all the snaps against Northwestern, Penn State's offense has momentum.


"They're playing with an attitude, especially the past few weeks,'' Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. "They're playing more aggressive, a lot more aggressive.


"Last year, it looked like they were just learning. This year, it looks like a well-oiled machine. We have to play the best we can to keep us in the game.''


Penn State still has plenty of work to do before thinking about the Big Ten title game. After hosting Illinois, the Nittany Lions finish the season with games against No. 13 Nebraska, Ohio State and No. 12 Wisconsin.


"Outside of Alabama, I'm sure Illinois will be the best team we've played so far,'' Paterno said.


Tell that to Zook's critics.


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.


*****


Illinois (6-2, 2-2) vs. Penn State (7-1, 4-0)


When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday


Where: Beaver Stadium (106,572), State College, Pa.


Series record: Penn State leads 14-4


Last meeting: Illinois 33-13 (2010)


Rankings: Penn State No. 21


Radio: 


TV: ABC


The line: 


Coaches: Ron Zook, 34-47 in seventh year at Illinois, 57-61 in 10th year overall; Joe Paterno, 408-136-3 in 46th year at Penn State and overall.


NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 23rd, 199.2; passing 72nd, 217.9; scoring 64, 28.6; total 45th, 417.1. Illinois defense -- rushing 19th, 101.9; passing 21st, 187.1; scoring 15th, 18.3; total 10th, 289.0. Penn State offense -- rushing 50th, 168.9; passing 84th, 206.2; scoring 89th, 23.2; total 76th, 375.1. Penn State defense -- rushing 19th, 101.9; passing 14th, 180.0; scoring 5th, 13.1; total 8th, 281.9.


Notable: Illinois is 3-11 against Penn State since the Nittany Lions began Big Ten play in 1993. The Illini play at Penn State in a schedule quirk because of the addition of Nebraska and the creation of Big Ten divisions. … Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins has 56 percent of Illinois' receiving yards and 47 percent of the team's catches. Jenkins leads the nation with 987 yards receiving. … Illini defensive end Whitney Mercilus leads the nation with 10 sacks. … Penn State leads the Big Ten and ranks 14th in the nation with seven sacks allowed. … Penn State wide receiver Derek Moye isn't expected to play. … Paterno will likely watch the game from the press box. He would set the FBS (Division I) record for career wins with a victory. He's tied with former Grambling coach Eddie Robinson.


Quotable: "We got a good lickin' is what I remember. I thought they kicked our ears in.'' -- Penn State coach Joe Paterno on last year's loss to Illinois.


Prediction: Penn State 17, Illinois 13