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Penn State
Knee injury alters Mills' perspective, approach to game

Thursday, October 23, 2003

By Ray Fittipaldo, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Zack Mills hasn't played a football game in almost a month. He has watched from the sideline as Penn State lost the past three games while he was rehabilitating a sprained left knee.

Penn State quarterback Zack Mills wants to have fun playing football again. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)


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During his time away, Mills reflected on the Nittany Lions' troubles and his own slump, which dates to last season.

After much introspection, the junior who is now competing for the starting job he had at the beginning of the season, has a new outlook on his football career.

"It was a time to step back," said Mills, who was injured in the first half of the loss Sept. 27 to Minnesota. "It was scary right after it happened because I had never injured a knee before. I thought I had torn something. I realized that football can be taken away just like that. It kind of brought the hunger and the drive back.

"I realized the biggest thing is to have fun and enjoy myself. If I do that, good things will happen."

Mills became the starter as a freshman in 2001 and threw for almost 2,500 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. He appeared on his way to setting every major Penn State passing record.

But things began to go bad for him. In the last seven games last season, he completed 79 of 149 passes (53 percent) for 851 yards.

Before he was injured this season, he completed 50 of 105 passes (47.6 percent) for 496 yards and one touchdown and three interceptions.

"There's been times the past two seasons when football wasn't as much fun for me," he said.

"It has felt more like a job than anything else. In high school and my first year here, it was different. Now, it's not as fun. That comes with not playing as well and not winning as much.

"But since I've had this injury, it's given me a new perspective. This game can be taken away from you quickly. Ever since I started playing in the fifth grade, this game was fun.

"That's what I've gotten back to thinking. I want the game to be fun for me. There were times before I was injured when I was not looking forward to going out to practice.

"The injury has changed that. I like going out to practice now and having to prove myself to people."

Mills' replacement, Michael Robinson, did not have a good game in Penn State's 28-14 loss at Purdue, but he did play well enough against Minnesota and Wisconsin that Paterno said he deserved to continue playing when Mills returned to the lineup.

Robinson has completed 54 of 124 passes (43.5 percent) for 725 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions this season.

Paterno has not said how the quarterbacks will be used Saturday at No. 16 Iowa.

"Joe has not addressed it," Robinson said.

"We both have the mentality that as long as we win, it doesn't matter who is in there. If we both play, that's fine. If Joe chooses one guy who he thinks is best, then that's what he'll do."

Robinson is taking more snaps than Mills in practice, but Mills is practicing without limitations.

"Getting used to running the option again and taking some hits, those will be the biggest two things," Mills said.

"I've been throwing without a problem for a week or week and a half now. I've been able to keep my timing.

"I'm pretty confident where I am. But the biggest thing will be running, and I was able to do that pretty well on Tuesday."

The last time Penn State used a quarterback rotation was the 1999 season, when Kevin Thompson and Rashard Casey split time.

Thompson and Casey didn't endorse using a quarterback rotation, and Mills said he is not sure if such a system can work.

"We'll just go out and play," he said. "If that's what they decide and it works, then maybe we'll stick with it.

"It worked here a few years ago. But I think me and Mike both want to be out there full time."


Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.

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