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Smizik: PSU quarterback: No run of the Mills

Sunday, September 15, 2002

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When you have a horse, you ride him.

When you have this kind of horse -- the kind who can take you exactly where every football team wants to go -- you ride him and ride him and ride him.

Penn State has such a horse. His name is Zack Mills. Joe Paterno rode Mills last night against Nebraska like he probably never had ridden any player in his long coaching career.

Literally dozens of great offensive players have come through Penn State in Paterno’s 37 years as head coach, including Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Ted Kwalick, John Cappelletti, Booker Moore, Todd Blackledge, Curt Warner, Kenny Jackson, Blair Thomas, Ki-Jana Carter, Kerry Collins and Curtis Enis, to name a few.

But Paterno seldom, if ever, has placed so much faith in one man. The Penn State game plan seemed to be the ultimate in simplicity. Keep the ball in Mills’ hands and let him win it. Mills, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound sophomore quarterback from Ijamsville, Md., didn’t let his coach down.

Mills didn’t single-handedly demolish Nebraska, 40-7, last night before a record Beaver Stadium crowd of 110,752. It only seemed that way.

It was a vintage Penn State win, the kind of victory over a nationally ranked team that has been too long absent from a program that staggered into this season. With this victory over the eighth-ranked Cornhuskers, the Lions took a large step toward reasserting themselves in the world of college football.

Once, not too long ago, they were royalty. More recently, they’ve been a middle-of-the pack mediocrity. Last night, that touch of royalty was there again.

Are the Lions back after consecutive losing seasons? It’s much too early to tell, particularly with a difficult Big Ten schedule that includes road games against Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State.

But it’s not too early to determine that Penn State has the player to lead them back to national prominence.

Paterno had been slow to recognize the new role of importance of the quarterback in the college game. The Lions plodded along with the conservative, run-oriented offense that had taken them to the heights but which no longer was the answer.

With Mills, the Lions are ready to allow a quarterback to lead them, just as the likes of Michael Vick and Chris Weinke led their teams to national championship games in recent years.

“He’s one of those kids who doesn’t show fear, who doesn’t show antsiness and doesn’t show a lot of emotion,” quarterback coach Jay Paterno said. “He just goes out and plays.”

Paterno mixed his offense in the Lions opener against Central Florida. He did no such thing against the Cornhuskers. It was Mills, Mills and more Mills -- at least until the game was well in hand.

Consider: Penn State ran 42 plays in the first half. Mills was involved in 34 of them -- 25 passes and nine runs. He passed for 205 yards in the first half alone, a total which recently was a good game for a Penn State quarterback. He ran for another 21 yards.

When the Lions scored three quick touchdowns in the third quarter, Paterno scaled back the use of Mills and went to running the ball. Still, Mills finished with 259 yards passing -- 19 of 31 -- and 32 yards rushing.

“He’s a talented athlete,” Joe Paterno said. “He does some things very well.”

Integral to the success of Mills is wide receiver Bryant Johnson, who burst on the scene last year with 51 receptions, escaping the oblivion of too many dropped passes. He’s a significant talent, who is made better by Mills and who makes Mills better.

Carrying the quarterback theme a step further, Paterno and offensive coordinator Fran Ganter used backup quarterback Michael Robinson, a supremely talented athlete, in the backfield with Mills on several occasions.

Again, this was a departure from the way Paterno has coached. Too often, great athletes languished on the bench and waited their turn. Paterno knew that Robinson, a redshirt freshman, was too talented to keep off the field.

He carried the ball four times, once from wide receiver, and gained 56 yards and scored two touchdowns.

The defeat raised questions about the Nebraska program, long one of the best in the country. Although the Cornhuskers came into the game, 3-0, those wins were scored over sub-par opposition. In this game and in their final two games of last year, against Colorado and Miami, they’ve been outscored, 139-57.

Paterno scaled back his offense after the Lions took a big lead, utilizing tailback Larry Johnson effectively and putting Mills in the background. On a 54-yard touchdown drive that used up four minutes, 35 seconds midway through the fourth quarter, the Lions did not throw a pass.

Mills might have been out of sight, but not out of mind.

He’s the player most responsible for this victory, he’s the player who can rescue Penn State from its two-season nightmare.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.

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