<
>

JoePa loosening the reins as Morelli matures

It wouldn't be gamesmanship, but it would sure sound like it, so Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli won't be calling Notre Dame freshman Jimmy Clausen this week with any advice.

What Morelli would tell the kid making his first career start in the crucible of whiteout conditions Saturday night at Beaver Stadium (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET) would be both wise counsel and a well-intentioned warning.

It wouldn't play that way, though, so Morelli won't volunteer the lesson he knows Clausen will learn soon enough.

"You might think you know everything," Morelli said. "I had Mike [Robinson, former PSU QB] pull me aside at practice for two years and tell me what I had to do to be a good quarterback at this level. So you think you know what you're doing. You think so, until you get in there and realize how fast things are moving."

It hasn't been that long since Morelli was what Clausen is now -- a wildly talented, laser-armed phenom cast as the cornerstone of a proud program's rebirth.

Sure, Morelli came to Penn State in the fall of 2004 without the white Hummer limo or the news conference on the steps of the College Football Hall of Fame, but he certainly arrived with a splash comparable to those elements of Clausen's announced intention to attend Notre Dame.

After all, for a quarterback, is there anything more wave-inducing than the Western Pennsylvania pedigree of Namath, Marino and Montana?

Morelli, a product of Penn Hills High in Pittsburgh, brought his four-year starter's résumé decorated with 57 touchdowns and 5,255 passing yards into Happy Valley, ready to ride to the rescue of a program reeling from three losing seasons in the previous four years.

Instead, he parked his white horse for the next two years and mucked stalls, watching Robinson awkwardly direct a 4-7 season in 2004 before conjuring an 11-1, Orange Bowl championship season in 2005.

Morelli attempted only 33 passes in those years combined. Then, when he finally unclenched his teeth from all the waiting and inherited the starting job, he found Joe Paterno still ardently yanking on the reins.

The 11.0 yards per completion Morelli averaged in 2006 ranked last in the Big Ten during the regular season until Paterno finally eased up on the bit in the Outback Bowl victory over Tennessee.

Morelli's 14 completions went for 197 yards that day, and he committed zero turnovers.

Still, the possibility persisted that was just some New Year's Day lark for Paterno and he'd resolve to return to the dink and dunk once this season began.

Florida International coach Mario Cristobal must have figured as much last week, when he crowded the scrimmage line to retard Penn State's running game. In other years, rushing for 35 yards on 16 first-half carries might have induced a white-knuckle finish.

But this time Morelli riddled FIU's man-to-man coverage downfield, passing for two touchdowns and a school-record 231 yards before halftime en route to an assortment of career bests (23-of-38 for 295 yards and three scores) in a 59-0 rout.

It's a quarterback's dream to go out there and throw the ball to open up the run. We've been working on the passing game nonstop this offseason. That's the thing they're allowing us to do -- throw the ball around the yard.

--Anthony Morelli

"It's a quarterback's dream to go out there and throw the ball to open up the run," Morelli said. "We've been working on the passing game nonstop this offseason. That's the thing they're allowing us to do -- throw the ball around the yard."

There's no reason to depart from that strategy against Notre Dame, whose secondary has been a batting-practice fastball for every experienced quarterback it's encountered in the Charlie Weis era.

Where should the coverage emphasis be: on Jordan Norwood, who had five catches for 92 yards against FIU, tight end Mickey Shuler (4-54), flanker Derrick Williams (4-31), tailback Rodney Kinlaw (3-34) or receiver Deon Butler (3-66)?

Morelli completed at least one pass to eight different receivers and led Penn State to points on all nine trips inside the 20-yard line.

Last season, the Lions ranked next-to-last in the Big Ten with a .745 conversion rate in the red zone.

Those troubles began at Notre Dame in Week 2, where an early advance to the 9-yard line ended on a fumbled field goal snap. A Morelli fumble later went for a Notre Dame touchdown, and he also threw the first of his eight interceptions on the season to invite a 41-17 Irish laugher.

"Morelli is a much better quarterback than he was a year ago at this time going into his second game," Paterno said. "I think we're a better football team than we were a year ago. I think Morelli's better. I think the wideouts, the people that you'd hope would make some plays are cruising along. So, I think we're in a little better shape."

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 19 years and now is host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.