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Football: Struggling Penn State gets a lift from Mills

Monday, November 03, 2003

By Ray Fittipaldo, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Penn State lost the game against Ohio State Saturday, but the Nittany Lions might have found something that has been missing from their repertoire for quite some time -- the old Zack Mills.

Mills, starting for the first time since Sept. 27, had his best passing game in more than a year in the 21-20 loss at Beaver Stadium.

Mills was 27 of 43 for 253 yards, the most since he threw for 264 in a 27-24 loss at Michigan last Oct. 12. It was the first time he threw for more than 200 yards in a game since Nov. 9 in a 35-14 win against Virginia, a span of 11 games.

"It'd be much more redemptive if we had won," Mills said after the game. "It was nice to throw for more than 100 yards; I'm not going to lie. But we didn't win and that's the bottom line."

Mills had averaged 105 yards passing this season. After his left knee was sprained against Minnesota, he missed two additional games and came on in relief of backup Michael Robinson in a 26-14 loss at Iowa.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno declared the starting job open last week. Mills said he received no indication he was going to start until Friday's practice when he took about 60 percent of the snaps with the first-team offense. Even then, he wasn't sure.

But with his performance against Ohio State, which has one of the top defenses in Division I-A, Mills won't have to wonder this week. He will be the Lions' starter Saturday at Northwestern.

"I thought Zack played a great game," Paterno said.

"I watched some extra tape last week," Mills said. "I made most of the reads I needed to make. Guys were out there making plays for me. Before, either I wasn't putting it on the money or they were dropping them. It finally came together."

Mills moved up Penn State's records list in several categories. He became the all-time leader in completions with 406, passing Tony Sacca. He moved past Todd Blackledge into fourth place in passing yards with 4,973. He also moved into second place in total offense with 5,482 yards.

In the process, Mills seemed to regain the confidence of his teammates.

"Zack is such a cool guy as far as his demeanor in there," senior fullback Sean McHugh said. "He's always calm. He's always poised. He brings you in there and makes you believe. That's what he did [Saturday] and that's what he's always done."

There are still some kinks to work out. He is throwing to young and inexperienced receivers. On Saturday, he was throwing to two players -- Maurice Humphrey and Gerald Smith -- who were defensive backs at the beginning of the season and another -- Terrance Phillips -- who had only performed mop-up duty.

They made some mistakes and are likely to make more in the final three games. But with a third losing season in four years assured, this is the perfect opportunity to build some cohesion for next year.

There were some signs of improvement in the game against Ohio State.

Humphrey had a career-high seven receptions for 64 yards and little-used Phillips had two catches for 47 yards, one a twisting catch on a third-and-10 that kept the Lions' first touchdown drive going.

Phillips played because Tony Johnson was sitting out a second consecutive game for a drunken-driving arrest, and because of injuries to Smith and Josh Hannum. Smith left in the first half with a concussion and Hannum has a back injury.

Humphrey said they are starting to develop a rapport with Mills.

"Zack is the type of guy where there's a certain spot you have to get to," Humphrey said. "And if you get to that spot, the ball is going to be there."

Mills said he has to keep telling himself to be patient with his young wideouts. But he is optimistic about their future.

"I see a lot of athleticism in those guys," Mills said. We have to let them get some experience and have some success. I'm excited to have them out there."


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

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