There's no doubt Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli will get better, perhaps as soon as today when the Nittany Lions play a weak Northwestern team at Beaver Stadium. He has too big of an arm and too much talent not to improve. There also is this: He can't be worse than he was at Ohio State last Saturday. He didn't just throw those two late interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in a 28-6 loss. He didn't stick his nose into the heart of the Ohio State defense and pick up a much-needed first down on a third-quarter running play. That might have been more troubling than the picks.
Of course Morelli will play better.
But no matter how good Morelli gets, he'll never be the quarterback he could have been for Penn State. That's not his fault. That's on his coaches.
It would be a lot easier to endure Morelli's growing pains and Penn State's 2-2 start if Joe Paterno hadn't wasted Morelli's redshirt year in 2004. How much better would you feel about Morelli and his chances of growing into a big-time quarterback if he had the rest of this season and two years of eligibility left rather than just this season and next?
Paterno made the decision to play Morelli, out of Penn Hills High School, as a true freshman in the first game of the '04 season, putting him in late in a blowout win against Akron. It made some sense at the time. Penn State looked as if it would be Morelli's team in '05. Why not get the kid some experience behind starter Zack Mills?
What made no sense was Paterno's handling of Morelli the rest of the season. He hardly played him, even though he had plenty of chances. He was too loyal to Mills, who did not have a good senior season. The team wasn't exactly a Big Ten Conference contender. It finished 4-7.
Paterno didn't play Morelli in a loss at Wisconsin after Mills and Michael Robinson, who divided his time as a quarterback, running back and wide receiver that season, were injured. Paterno said he wasn't comfortable playing Morelli against such a ferocious defense. After other blown opportunities to use Morelli, Paterno said he had planned to play him, but, for whatever reason, couldn't get him in.
Penn State is paying for that now.
Morelli is paying for it.
Morelli also didn't play much last season, this time for the best of reasons. Paterno settled on Robinson at quarterback, and it's pretty hard to argue that move. Robinson wasn't much of a passer, but he was a tremendous leader and winner, practically willing Penn State to an 11-1 season, a co-Big Ten championship and an Orange Bowl win against Florida State.
But, as fabulous as Penn State's season was, Robinson's success didn't do anything for Morelli's development. He started this season having thrown 33 passes in two seasons. Is it any wonder that Penn State's offense has struggled, especially on the road against powerhouse teams Notre Dame and Ohio State? That Morelli's timing has been off with his receivers? That he has made poor decisions, especially on the first interception that was run back for a touchdown by Ohio State when he tried to go deep to tight end Kevin Darling rather than going to something underneath?
"The only good thing that can come out of this is it's another learning experience," Morelli said after the game.
In fairness to Morelli, Penn State play-callers Galen Hall and Jay Paterno haven't always helped him much. At times, they seem to forget Robinson has moved on to the NFL. Morelli is no Robinson as a runner, yet Hall/Paterno have called runs for him at critical times. It happened at Notre Dame early in the third quarter when Morelli ran an option play and lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. It also happened at Ohio State on a second-and-1 play at the Penn State 29 when Morelli faked a handoff right to running back Tony Hunt and ran a keeper around left end. Ohio State tackled him for no gain when he tried to beat the defense to the corner and failed to try to turn up the field. Penn State had to punt one play later.
"I think he sometimes thinks he's faster than he is," Joe Paterno said of Morelli. "I think he sometimes forgets down and distance. But he hasn't done a lot of that stuff yet."
That's about as harsh as Paterno gets with his criticism of Morelli. The old coach is no dummy. He knows he has to keep Morelli's head right for Penn State to have a chance at another successful season. He also knows he didn't do everything he could to put Morelli in the best position to succeed.
"I hope he isn't down. I don't think he should be," Paterno said. "Anthony is going to be a fine quarterback. We have to be patient with him. I know I have to be patient with him."
It didn't have to be that way for Morelli or Penn State.