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FOOTBALL: Morelli improves, ready for Notre Dame

Ken Fowler | Friday, September 7, 2007

The scene a year ago was a portent of things to come: Penn State’s offense sputtering in a loss to a top-25 team.

With just over 12 minutes left in regulation in the first meeting between Notre Dame and Penn State since the 1992 “Snow Bowl,” former Irish tailback Darius Walker scored on a 15-yard pass, and Notre Dame took a 41-3 lead over the Nittany Lions. The Penn State offense, though it would score twice in the waning minutes, never gave its defense a chance.

Penn State would recover from the loss and beat all the teams it was supposed to. But it would lose three more times, going 0-for-4 against its biggest challenges of the year.

First it was Notre Dame. Then Ohio State. Then Michigan. And, finally, Wisconsin.

In the four losses, there was one consistent problem, though in different variations, for Penn State: quarterback Anthony Morelli.

The Nittany Lion defense was at worst respectable all season – the lone exception was the Notre Dame loss. Penn State surrendered 28 points to Ohio State, 17 to Michigan and 13 to Wisconsin.

It was the offense that failed the Nittany Lions each time: six points against the Buckeyes, 10 against the Wolverines and only three against Wisconsin.

Morelli, now a senior, was efficient – 21-for-33 for 189 yards and one touchdown – against Notre Dame, but he threw one interception and had a fumble returned for a score by Irish safety Tom Zbikowski.

A season later, and with 107,000 fans expected to “white out” Beaver Stadium, Penn State coach Joe Paterno said he envisions a much different Anthony Morelli facing the Irish.

So do the fans, who began camping outside the stadium entrances on Tuesday. University rules prohibit students from gathering outside the stadium until Thursdays, but Penn State made an exception for Notre Dame.

And there are high expectations. The No. 14 Nittany Lions picked apart Florida International last Saturday in a 59-0 win at home. Even though the Golden Panthers finished 0-12 last season and have been the dregs of the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A), Penn State looked sharp for an opener. Morelli was emblematic of that. He completed 23-of-38 passes for a career-high 295 yards and three touchdowns.

“Morelli is a much better quarterback than he was a year ago at this time going into his second game – and we’re playing home,” Paterno said during his weekly teleconference. “That was a tough job for him going out there last year, to take a football team that was still shaky about a lot of things.

“I think we’re a better football team than we were a year ago. I think Morelli is better, I think the wide-outs, the people who you would hope would make some plays, are further along. So I think we’re in a little better shape.”

But the process has been a gradual one, with bumps along the way. Specifically, bumps against three Big Ten teams, all of whom were top-10 quality.

Against Ohio State, Morelli threw three interceptions in 25 attempts and managed only 106 yards. He finished 19-of-35 for 165 yards with no touchdowns and an interception against Wisconsin.

The Michigan loss, however, was a different story. Morelli was 11-for-18 with 133 yards halfway through the third quarter when he suffered a concussion and was taken out of the game with the Nittany Lions trailing 10-3.

But that was a different year. The Nittany Lions lost running back Tony Hunt to the NFL Draft, but they’ve added experience at wide receiver – including juniors Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood – and a slew of running backs who are competing for playing time.

And even though Notre Dame in 2007 isn’t Notre Dame in 2006, Saturday’s game is a chance for Morelli to make a statement against a big-name team.

“I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a big game for us,” Morelli said after the win over Florida International. “We have to take care of the football. We have to take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves. We have to get in the film room, practice and work hard. We have a big game ahead of us so we definitely have to prepare.”