Two hours before Penn State's kickoff against Nebraska last
Saturday, sophomore quarterback Zack Mills sat on the Nittany
Lions' team bus as it motored through Happy Valley toward Beaver
Stadium. On his left a red-orange sunset spilled over the
Alleghenies. On his right a blue-and-white river of fans lined
the road and roared as if they'd been waiting five years for this
caravan to roll by. Such a sight is typical at schools that
contend for national championships--which means it hasn't been
typical at Penn State for the past few seasons.
"The whole scene gave me chills," says Mills, who redshirted in
2000. "Since I've been here, we haven't had a big-game atmosphere
like that. But this team is bringing Penn State back to where it
In pummeling eighth-ranked Nebraska 40-7, the Nittany Lions
infused new life into a Penn State program that was coming off
back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in coach Joe
Paterno's 36-year tenure. The seeds for the swift turnaround were
planted last year, when Paterno, who had long believed that
first-year players were too callow to contribute, turned his
offense over to the freshman Mills in Game 5. Not only that, but
the conservative Paterno also installed new plays out of the
shotgun and the option, trying to stretch the field any way he
Against the Cornhuskers, Mills ran this multiple offense almost
flawlessly. Facing a blitzing defense, he calmly completed 19 of
31 passes for 259 yards and rushed for 32 yards on 14 carries.
Most telling, however, was that of the Nittany Lions' 74
offensive plays, Mills either passed or ran on 61% of them.
Twelve months ago it would have been unimaginable for one player
to be so dominant in Paterno's offense. "Mills is gifted," says
Paterno. "We'd be foolish if we didn't let him handle the ball."
September 22, 2002
After the game Mills was measured in assessing the significance
of the win. "It's only one game," he said, "but we made a
statement." --Lars Anderson