Former Iowa QB leads EIU into Penn State on Saturday
Most of Eastern Illinois' football players have no idea what they're getting into when they travel to play at Penn State on Saturday.
They've never played in such a massive place as Beaver Stadium, never seen so many opposing fans and have never faced so much future NFL talent.
But Eastern Illinois senior quarterback Jake Christensen has.
It's actually old hat to Christensen. Before transferring to Eastern Illinois this season, Christensen played his previous three seasons at Iowa. He's been to the major stadiums, seen the overflowing crowds and faced the big-time talent. Two years ago, he even started for the Hawkeyes at Penn State.
"They've never really seen anything like it," said Christensen, who was 16-for-29 for 146 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions in Iowa's loss at Penn State in 2007. "It's OK to be awestruck at first, but at the end of the day, they put their pants on the same way we do."
Christensen ended up at Eastern Illinois this season after a rocky junior year at Iowa in 2008. He had been the Hawkeyes' starter throughout his sophomore season, a year in which Iowa went 6-6. The following season, he was beaten out by Ricky Stanzi for the starting position, and ultimately he opted to leave Iowa.
He now says the decision had to do with more than just playing time.
"I just wasn't happy," said Christensen, who starred at Lockport (Ill.) High School. "That's what it really boils down to. When you're not happy, you don't play well, and everything in your life kind of starts falling apart at the seams. I think the most important thing for any person is they enjoy where they're at and enjoy what they're doing. It came down to enjoying life, and I wasn't enjoying it there."
When Christensen began looking at other options, his father, Jeff Christensen, a former Eastern Illinois and NFL quarterback, suggested his alma mater. Jeff contacted Eastern Illinois offensive coordinator Roy Wittke, who had originally recruited Jake Christensen while Wittke was at Arkansas, and the ball began rolling.
"It was about the opportunity to play and to have a chance to be a part of a program that was going to win, to have an opportunity to make an impact," Wittke said. "He's never, through his actions or things he has said, ever given any indication through the staff and his teammates that he feels he's taken a step down. He's been a good teammate. He's been a good ambassador for our program so far. I think he's happy he now [has] an opportunity to continue his career."
One of the major hurdles for Christensen to get an opportunity play at Eastern Illinois was that he needed to graduate from Iowa per NCAA rules. At the time, he was 42 credits short.
Over the spring and summer, he pursued those credits, at times even driving four hours each way from Charleston, Ill., to Iowa City to attend classes. It was a challenge for Christensen for a number of reasons, but he did accomplish it.
"I've never been a brainiac, if you will," Christensen said. "My brother got all the brains in the family I'm not saying I'm dumb, but it was never my favorite part of the day, if you know what I'm saying. It was a tough experience. I'm kind of glad it happened the way it did.
"It was no fun, but at the end of the day I got a degree from a Big Ten school, and I'm still playing football, so I think everything worked out pretty good from my point of view."
Christensen also had to receive a waiver from the NCAA to play his final season at Eastern Illinois. It finally came on Aug. 19.
On Sept. 3, he started his first game for the Panthers, completing 14-of-22 passes for 167 yards, three touchdowns and an interception in a win over Illinois State. Since then, he's led Eastern Illinois to a 4-1 record while posting impressive stats: 89-for-136 for 1,090 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.
"He's made the transition as smoothly as I think one could hope for," Wittke said. "He picked up our system, picked up our offense without the benefit of spring practice, without the benefit of preparing in the summer as well. He's also fit in our program as a member of our team. He's become a leader for us on the field, taking charge of our offense in games, practice, in the huddle, at the line of scrimmage. That doesn't necessarily come as a surprise, but that process has gone smoother than we hoped for."
The Panthers' start is their best since Tony Romo was the QB taking the snaps. Of course, Romo's success as a Panther and beyond didn't hurt in Christensen's choosing Eastern Illinois as his destination.
"I think Tony is kind of the poster boy for FCS [Football Championship Subdivision] quarterbacks," Christensen said. "You know you have Kurt Warner, obviously, too -- went to UNI [Northern Iowa]. I think it's more so these days, it doesn't really matter where you play as long as you're a good player. Tony, I think, as far as Eastern Illinois, opened some people's eyes that there's some good football being played out here."
The Panthers now hope to show that at Penn State. Christensen's message to his teammates heading into State College, Pa., is simple.
"It's going to be loud," Christensen said. "They're going to be bigger than we are and probably faster than we are at every position, but it's been done before, and there's no reason why we can't do it. We're not scared. We're not intimidated. We're ready to play football and ready for the chips to fall where they may."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.