UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The Penn State defense is playing great again, almost as good as ever. Through three quarters of a 33-7 win against Northwestern yesterday, excluding a 25-yard run and a 36-yard pass in the final 30 seconds of the first half when it was in a prevent, it held the Wildcats to 42 rushing yards, 32 passing yards and three first downs. Linebacker Paul Posluszny showed his quickness for the first time since his knee injury in the Orange Bowl, at one point chasing down running back Tyrell Sutton on a screen pass. Linebacker Sean Lee ended one second-half drive with a sack for a near-safety and the next drive with an interception. Northwestern quarterback Andrew Brewer never had a chance.
The Penn State running game also is rolling again. Tailback Tony Hunt topped 100 yards for the third consecutive game, this time getting 137 yards and three touchdowns. "He's certainly one of the better backs we've had," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said.
Even Penn State's slapstick field-goal kicking team finally got its act together. Kicker Kevin Kelly was 4 for 4, hitting from 34, 22, 33 and 36 yards.
All that means everything is in place for a strong Penn State finish, maybe even wins in its final seven games, including the big one against Michigan at home Oct. 14, if ...
"Morelli's got to be the guy. He knows that now," Paterno said.
Quarterback Anthony Morelli.
Yesterday was a big step for him.
Morelli's day started with a 40-yard pass to wide receiver Deon Butler on Penn State's first play. It was a brilliant call by the Penn State coaches. What's that they say about getting right back on the horse? In Penn State's previous game, a 28-6 loss to Ohio State, Morelli threw two late killer interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.
Morelli and Butler also hooked up for 55- and 49-yard gains. Morelli was responsible for all but the final seven of Butler's 216 receiving yards, a Penn State record. He completed 19 of 33 passes for 288 yards and would have gone over 300 if not for a fourth-quarter drop by receiver/running back Derrick Williams.
Did I mention this was a huge step for Morelli?
"It was real important," Morelli said of his day in general and that first pass to Butler in particular. "Just to get out there and get things going again. We had a rough one last week, but to come out today and throw it all over the lot, it felt great."
It had been a long, difficult week for Morelli.
No matter how hard a guy tries not to read the papers or listen to the talk shows, no matter how hard he tries to screen his e-mails ...
"I hear about it," Morelli said of the criticism heaped on him after the Ohio State loss. "The fans, everyone has been all over me. Hopefully, they'll stick with us and be patient. Hopefully, we'll get things rolling."
Morelli's day wasn't perfect. The worst part of it wasn't his second-quarter interception, which set up a gift touchdown for Northwestern at the Penn State 16. He just didn't get the ball quite deep enough for Butler over linebacker Nick Roach. Hey, it happens.
Much more troubling was Morelli's decision to throw the ball up for grabs in the end zone on a third-and-12 play at the Northwestern 17 in the first quarter. It should have been intercepted. So should another ball he unwisely hung up for wide receiver Brendan Perretta in the third quarter.
But Morelli's good decisions easily trumped his bad ones. Paterno said Penn State's offense was designed to use short, play-action passes to ease the pressure of protecting Morelli with a makeshift offensive line that played without standout left tackle Levi Brown (knee). But Morelli saw that Northwestern was playing man-to-man coverage on Butler on the backside, hence the long passes.
"That's just the maturation of Anthony," Butler said. "He was calm the whole day. He marched us up and down the field all day. He just took what the defense gave us. Today just happened to be my day. Next week, it could be one of the other guys. Anthony is going to get the ball to the right guy. As the season goes on, everybody is going to see him get better and better."
Morelli might have shown his best judgment on a five-play sequence late in the third quarter. After faking a handoff to Hunt and reverses to Williams and Butler on the same play, he looked deep, quickly saw nothing open and dumped his pass off to Butler for a safe, 8-yard gain. Later, he looked right, saw nothing available, turned and threw left to Williams for a 15-yard pickup.
Paterno expected as much.
"Anthony is not a young quarterback anymore," he said of his first-year starter.
Certainly, Morelli grew up a lot yesterday.
As a result, the rest of the Penn State season suddenly looks a whole lot brighter.