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Notre Dame rattled Nittany Lions early



Published: Mon, September 11, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



Anthony Morelli, making his first road start, showed jitters against the Irish.

MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS

In sizing up Penn State's offense, Notre Dame put the focus on a green line and a quarterback making his first road start. By the third quarter, the Irish defense sensed their scouting was on point.

"You could see it in his eyes," Notre Dame linebacker Travis Thomas said of Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli. "He was rattled, getting his happy feet. We took them out of their game."

Penn State's offense took a surprising step backward Saturday in a 41-17 loss to Notre Dame.

A series of mistakes contributed to the early unraveling, but the Lions made some playcalling choices that harkened to the wayward days of 2003-04.

Challenged them to run

With the Irish leaning primarily on Morelli and the receivers, Penn State was offered room to run the ball.

But a startling 27-point deficit early in the third quarter forced the coaches into an antsy spot, to which they responded with an offense that fairly screamed, "Derrick Williams, please save us."

And it didn't work.

"We didn't play anything like Penn State football," receiver Deon Butler said.

The Lions' offense certainly wasn't ineffective. Tony Hunt gained 64 yards on nine carries in the first half, and Morelli completed six of his first eight passes. But a botched field goal, a Hunt fumble and a clipping penalty curtailed three of the Lions' first four drives.

"We actually moved the ball fairly well in the first half," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "It was a question of, we didn't do anything to finish them off."

But in the second half, the Lions' offense took an odd turn. Instead of continuing the theme, Penn State, trailing 20-0, resorted to its Zack Mills/Michael Robinson offense circa 2004.

On third-and-2, Morelli ran the option, got "a little hungry," according to his coach, and ran right into two Notre Dame defenders.

He made a feeble attempt at pitching the ball, but Notre Dame defender Tom Zbikowski picked it up and returned it for a touchdown, giving the Irish a 27-0 lead, prompting Penn State to panic further.

"[Morelli] was showing where he was going with the ball," Notre Dame safety Chinedum Ndukwe said, "and we took advantage of it."

Ndukwe certainly did late in the third quarter, picking off a deep ball intended for Butler. After that, Paterno sent in Williams to be a Robinsonesque savior (and Morelli to be the Millsesque decoy). The Irish weren't fooled by that, either.

"This loss is tough on everybody," Williams said, "but the big thing is what we do after the loss."

The Lions should be able to restore their confidence Saturday, when Division I-AA Youngstown State comes to Beaver Stadium.




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