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Finder: Mills' slump is mystifying

Sunday, September 07, 2003

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State's quarterback quandary isn't so much Zack Mills or Michael Robinson, because, in reality, this team needs both at once to win.

Rather, the question is: What did Joe Paterno do to ruin Zack Mills?

This isn't the same left-hander who won 10 of his first 14 games under center, dropping two in close-call overtimes. This isn't the same quarterback who dazzled with his arm and legs, setting school records as a freshman and a sophomore. This isn't the same Zachary Eric Mills; it must be an impostor.

Mills was 15-for-28 passing yesterday for a paltry 144 yards with one interception -- on a screen pass that defensive tackle Tom Martin returned to the 1 to arrange a Boston College touchdown in a 27-14 Beaver Stadium embarrassment.

And this was after a 6-for-17 performance for a minuscule 79 yards with one interception and one touchdown last week against lowly Temple, another lackluster Big East foe.

For one reason or another, Mills isn't half the passer he used to be: He threw for 261 yards per game in the opening six games last season but has managed only 119 per game since. Go ahead and ascribe much of that dropoff to the rushing rise of Larry Johnson last season, but that doesn't explain the fact that Mills' interception total has tripled despite attempting a third fewer passes per game. Go ahead and factor in the paucity of polished talent around him now, but that doesn't compute when it comes to the stats that he has passed for fewer than 100 yards in three of his past four games and fewer than 150 in eight of his past nine.

Something's amiss. And not just Mills' throws. Not just the strange deployment of Robinson through the first half yesterday ("You wonder why," Robinson mused, "I know no reason.").

And Paterno plans to do nothing but try to ride it out. With both.

"I'm not going to get into that," the septuagenarian Penn State coach groused when the two-headed quarterback specter was raised after his worst home loss in two years. Boston College's 21-0 lead after just seven minutes, 10 seconds ranked right down there with Miami's 33-0 halftime advantage to inaugurate 2001.

"Zack Mills is our quarterback. And I think we can use Michael Robinson effectively in a lot of ways, particularly until we decide what the makeup of the team is going to be."

For now, it isn't just an identity crisis on offense, but a case of a missing person.

Mills doesn't put the same zip on his passes that he did in 2001 and early 2002, with only four yesterday resembling anything close. Those four went for 84 of his 144 yards. There were 24 other attempts.

And Mills doesn't seem to get loose on runs like he did before, running eight times yesterday, but mostly for his life.

"Zack ... uh ... we weren't pass protecting," Paterno understated.

"We knocked him down about 15 times," Boston College coach Tom O'Brien said, referring to the numerous hurries and, on the Post-Gazette ringside card, at least five sacks that Penn State's number-crunchers officially counted as only two sacks. "We couldn't knock him out. He's one tough guy."

Mills maintains that his left elbow, a recurrent ailment since high school, and his left shoulder, injured last season against Wisconsin, feel better than ever. Perhaps he short-arms passes not because of pain but out of preservation for the rest of his body, what with the cattle rush of defenders stomping toward him.

Sure, Robinson would provide a better scrambling option behind such a porous group, but that would keep Mills, the best quarterback, off the field.

No, the answer to the quarterback quandary is: Play both. At the same time.

"We don't have Larry in the backfield anymore. We don't have BJ," Mills said, meaning former running back Larry Johnson and departed wide receiver Bryant Johnson.

"We have to get Mike in there any way we can, so he can make up some of those yards. That's how we're going to have to play."

While starting at tailback and playing quarterback, receiver and punt-returner, Robinson had a 53-yard sweep last week against Temple, helping to pry open a 13-3 lead. Yesterday, the Nittany Lions' coaches chose to align him as a decoy in the first half, before finally freeing him to rush for 24 yards and throw -- not much more effectively than Mills -- for 41 yards on 4-of-11 passing.

"I have no idea why the first half was called like it was called," said a frustrated Robinson. "I'm glad they let me drop back and throw it. I'm ready [for quarterback]. But I think Zack did a great job, for the record."

He added that he believes there are "certain games" when his abilities might lend themselves better at quarterback than Mills'.

Next week against Nebraska isn't one of them. Robinson gained a memorable 56 yards rushing and two touchdowns last September against Nebraska, and surely the Cornhuskers will be ready for him Saturday when the Lions go to Lincoln. Without as many talented Johnsons and linemen surrounding any Lions quarterback, Mills at least needs Robinson -- and vice versa -- to give this offense not only its best threats but its best chance at winning.

After defensively yielding 206 first-quarter yards to Boston College -- hey, that's a nifty 824-yard pace -- and sputtering offensively while inexplicably keeping Robinson under wraps for the first half, this bunch of Lions doesn't have much hope of success hereafter. Look down the rest of the 2003 schedule, and if you can locate more than five potential victories for Penn State as currently constituted, then I want some of what you're smoking.

But if anybody can locate the Mills of the Penn State past, there might be some Paterno Wheaties boxes in it for you.


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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