Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Leadership, poise are trademarks for QB

For many players, creating the aura of being a team leader and earning the respect of your teammates takes years. For many, it never happens at all.

For Penn State quarterback Zack Mills, it took one series.

As a redshirt freshman in 2001, Mills was thrown into the Nittany Lions’ fifth game of the season at Northwestern with 1:39 remaining after an injury knocked out starter Matt Senneca. With Penn State trailing 35-31, Mills calmly walked into the huddle and asked his teammates, “What’s up fellas? You ready to take this in?”

He proceeded to complete 5-of-8 passes for 54 yards, capping the drive with a 4-yard touchdown throw with 22 seconds left, giving the Nittany Lions their first victory of the season.

“It was a great win for us,” Mills said at a Wednesday press conference. “That did a lot for the team and for myself confidence-wise.”

Mills wasted no time in showing that his late-game heroics could be the norm, following his performance against NU with come-from-behind wins over Ohio State and Michigan State. He became the starter the next year and excelled, displaying his trademark poise coupled with the athleticism that made him a standout in both football and basketball at Urbana High School in Maryland. His 2,417 yards on 188 completions in 2002 were far and away the best single-season totals by a sophomore in Penn State history.

Today the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Mills stands as the Nittany Lions’ all-time career completions leader with 406, and ranks second in school history in career total offense with 5,482 yards and fourth in career passing yardage with 4,973.

“Zack has always been a guy that I have felt was a coach’s quarterback,” said Penn State coach Joe Paterno. “I have always felt that he is smart and could take advantage of the opportunities that were available to him.”

Mills has a chance to graduate from Penn State with the best statistics of any quarterback in the program’s illustrious history — if he can keep his job, that is.

Mills sprained his left knee in the Nittany Lions’ 20-14 loss to Minnesota on Sept. 27, opening the door for backup Michael Robinson, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound sophomore who many call the most gifted athlete on Penn State’s roster. Robinson finished the Minnesota game and started the next two contests against Wisconsin and Purdue, displaying an explosive running ability of which Mills could only dream.

Robinson’s play against the Badgers was electrifying, as he completed 22-of-43 passes for 379 yards and two touchdowns. But his performance against the Boilermakers was disappointing: He threw two interceptions and completed only 10-of-32 passes. The Nittany Lions dropped both games by a combined 21 points, and the opportunity existed for Mills to return as the team’s catalyst.

Mills recovered from his knee injury in time to start against Iowa and, although he played solidly, Penn State lost 26-14. The Nittany Lions fell to 2-6 overall and 0-4 in the Big Ten. Paterno declared the season the toughest of his 53-year coaching career, and the Penn State faithful grew increasingly disillusioned.

The following week against Ohio State, however, they were given reason for optimism: the Zack Mills of 2002 returned.

Looking as confident as ever, Mills completed 27-of-42 passes for 253 yards and one touchdown against Ohio State’s premiere defense, a performance that brought the Nittany Lions to within one point of victory.

“Their entire team played very hard, and you add him to the formula, it made our challenge even greater,” said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. “I think there was a certain spark there just getting him back.”

Mills took every snap but had he showed any signs of faltering, he would have spent some time on the sideline.

“We intended Saturday to play both Zack Mills and Michael Robinson,” Paterno said. “Zack was playing so well and the game was going in a way that I felt we wanted to play him.”

Paterno has made no secret of his high regard for Robinson’s abilities, saying his skills demand playing time at quarterback or another offensive position.

But, despite the fact that Robinson could unseat him at any time, Mills enters this week’s game against NU with the same unwavering, self-assured demeanor that first won over his teammates two years ago.

“It’s my job to lose, therefore it’s my job,” Mills said. “Because I’m not going to lose it.”

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Leadership, poise are trademarks for QB