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Panthers’ Palko prepared for breakout year

Matt Puglisi | Friday, September 2, 2005

The last time Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko took the field against Notre Dame, he left his name behind – carved into the Irish record book.

The 41-38 Panther victory last Nov. 13 was the beginning of the end for the Irish, as Palko’s Notre Dame opponent record five touchdown passes – to go along with 334 yards and no interceptions on 26-of-42 passing – sparked a three-game Irish losing streak that culminated in former head coach Tyrone Willingham’s firing and a lopsided Insight Bowl loss to Oregon State.

“We’ve got great respect for Tyler Palko,” Irish defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. “I think he’s kind of a Brett Farve-type guy with better wheels. He can beat you with his head, his arm and his legs – that’s just a complete quarterback. The definition of him is probably that he’s a winner.”

Now, nearly 10 months after Palko lit up the Notre Dame Stadium scoreboard – and later lit up the NBC phone lines when he used profanity in the post-game interview – Notre Dame gets another chance against the Pittsburgh gunslinger and his favorite target, preseason All-American wide receiver Greg Lee.

“I think we’re more focused [this time],” safety Tom Zbikowski said. “That’s in the past, and we want to get that out, but it did happen. We’ve got to be ready.”

Combined with his accurate arm and gritty demeanor, Palko being left-handed could pose problems, at least initially, for the Irish defense.

“You know, it’s a little different right off the bat, because you have a lefty quarterback coming out of the gate, and our players have been practicing against righty quarterbacks the whole time,” Irish head coach Charlie Weis said. “Usually there’s a little different package when you have a lefty quarterback. There’s some little different wrinkles, because you are used to everything being strong sided coming from the defensive left, offensive right, and now you have just the flip of that where you have a lefty quarterback where your strong side or your blind side now is coming from the exact opposite side than it would be normally in practice.”

In addition to Palko, his go-to receiver, Lee, and a deep Pittsburgh receiving core have the ability to give Notre Dame headaches. Not a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school – he received only two scholarship offers – Lee made sure everyone knew his name last season, racking up 1,297 receiving yards and 10 touchdown receptions, including 95 yards and a second-quarter touchdown against the Irish last November.

“They have some talent, and I think it’s well documented that [Lee’s] one of the best receivers in college football, so that will present a challenge,” defensive backs coach Bill Lewis said. “I’ve been especially impressed with their tight ends. I think they’re a very solid group as a whole with a couple of very outstanding players, namely Lee.”

After all the talk of last season’s defensive meltdown against the Panthers, Minter is more concerned about tomorrow’s contest than what has already happened.

“He’s a guy that came in here last year at our house and did a heck of a job rallying his team,” Minter said. “We respect what he’s done, but our coaches weren’t here last year – now we’re here. We want to be known more for how we compete this Saturday night than last year’s Saturday.”