Heading into a particularly emotional Big Ten opener at Illinois, Penn State is trying to keep the focus on the field. Helping that along is a healthier backfield.
Bill O'Brien largely deflected questions about Illinois coaches coming to State College to recruit Penn State players after NCAA sanctions were announced in July. Instead, the coach was eager to talk about his options at running back with the likely returns of top backs Bill Belton and Derek Day.
"(Belton) practiced yesterday and looked decent," O'Brien said. "I anticipate he'll be ready to go for the game. ... Billy's got good feet, good vision and can catch the football."
The sophomore tabbed to replace Silas Redd injured his left ankle in the second half of the opener against Ohio and missed the next three games. Day stepped in to start the next week at Virginia but suffered a separated shoulder and sat out the last two games.
Even third-stringer Curtis Dukes missed the Temple game with a minor thigh injury. Fullback Michael Zordich stepped in at tailback the last two games but was forced out with a bruised knee.
O'Brien expects all four, along with last week's leading rusher, Zach Zwinak, will be available to face the Illini on Saturday.
"It's tough to use all five. It's definitely tough to use all five," O'Brien said. "But I definitely see us using two or three. It depends on how they practice during the week.
"We've got five guys who are good players, tough guys, and I love coaching them. Let's see who practices well, and then we'll decide as a coaching staff (who to play)."
Left tackle Donovan Smith and defensive end Sean Stanley are also expected to be back to face Illinois. Smith (foot/ankle) has missed two games while Stanley (back) was held out last week for precautionary reasons.
Defensive end Pete Massaro (shoulder) was listed as "possible" to play by Penn State, but O'Brien does not expect to have him available.
O'Brien said he's happy to have a relatively healthy squad because this week is the Big Ten opener -- and not because there's revenge on his mind from this summer.
"No, not at all," he said. "The players are very focused on the Big Ten schedule and building on what they did in the Temple game. They're not concerned with anything other than playing a tough road game in Champaign.
"The motivation is that it's our first Big Ten game."