Sports

Defending Morelli not just for opposition

SAN ANTONIO — Sometimes stories are born not of what happens, but what doesn’t happen.

For example, if Anthony Morelli had plunked himself into a chair with the other half-dozen members of the Penn State offense that met the media Wednesday in the Alamodome, spouted the usual platitudes (“Texas A&M’s defense has great players, we want to go out with a win, Joe Paterno has been fired up at practice,” etc.), and returned to his hotel room for an evening of studying game tape or searching for fishing lures on eBay, the first domino would have never had a chance to fall.

Instead, Morelli was a no-show, as he has been for the last month and a half (or, more specifically, for the last four occasions Nittany Lions have talked to the press).

That, however, is not the story. Players — even senior quarterbacks, even team captains — are under no obligation to sit and regurgitate canned answers to inane questions. Is some accountability lost if they don’t? Perhaps, but that wasn’t the fascinating part of Wednesday.

How Morelli’s absence affected (or created) the rest of the questions was.

But then, this has been happening all season, in a well-formed yet curious pattern: Morelli doesn’t show; reporters collectively scowl and instead ask teammates and coaches about their quarterback; teammates and coaches twist their tongues into balloon animals defending him — even when they don’t have to, it seems.

For example, Paterno lending Morelli public support after the losses at Michigan and Illinois effectively removed the Nittany Lions from national and Big Ten title contention was understandable, commendable. He was — and still is — the best quarterback the team had at the time and has right now. As the year went on, though, one got the feeling Paterno was diving in front of Morelli to stop bullets when there was no gun in sight.

When someone would ask about the inconsistency of the offense — which most of its players, including Morelli, would willingly admit to — Paterno would say Morelli wasn’t the problem. When someone would ask about the progress of backups Daryll Clark and Pat Devlin — with an eye toward 2008 rather than 2007 — Paterno would say Morelli wasn’t the problem.For no Penn State player in recent memory have so many people been so ready to praise and so unwilling to criticize.

Paterno’s offensive coordinator took his turn Wednesday.

“He’s been a very, very good player for us,” Galen Hall said of Morelli. “Underrated by a lot of people.”

Underrated? An “unsung hero,” as Paterno called his quarterback a few weeks ago? No.

That doesn’t fit. Morelli came to Penn State as one of the top high school prospects in the nation. Fans wanted to see him on the field when Zack Mills and Michael Robinson struggled in 2004, and even when Robinson came slowly out of the gate in 2005.

After his very solid game against Tennessee in last year’s Outback Bowl somehow became referred to as, in the offseason that followed, a dominant performance, fans expected big things from Morelli in 2007.

So Morelli has been sufficiently rated, his song sufficiently sung. He has not performed beyond what has been a lofty set of expectations. But then, neither has his team.

“You lose a game, you’ve got to blame it on someone,” Hall said, speaking more of the mindset of the masses than of the team. “Anthony Morelli has not lost a game. As a group, we’ve lost games.”

This group has lost four games, during a season in which some felt it would not suffer more than one or two losses. How much blame Morelli should actually receive for those is debatable. He can do and has done incredible things with a football.His arm strength is world-class, and his footwork, touch and yes, his ability to find a secondary receiver have all improved, if not by leaps and bounds.

But what will the most indelible memories of him be — the three beautiful touchdown passes at Temple, or the three interceptions at Illinois? The perfect strike to Chris Bell against Notre Dame, or the four straight incompletions during the final march at Michigan State?

Or will those memories be of teammates singing his praises, over and over?

“Anthony does a great job with the leadership on this team,” wide receiver Derrick Williams said. “He’s the first one out at practice, the last one to leave, first one to call somebody for an extra workout. It kind of gets to me when people blame him all the time, when it’s really not him.”

Wednesday was not the first time Williams has publicly stood up for his quarterback this season. He’s made a habit of it, and he has his reasons for it.

“People don’t see the Anthony Morelli at 12 o’clock at night when he’s out there throwing the ball,” Williams said. “He’s out there making sure that the (offensive) line is doing everything they’re supposed to be doing. He’s taking charge of the whole team and trying to be the best leader and the best quarterback that he can be.”

And yet, as Morelli prepares for his 26th career start, his teammates find themselves defending that leader.

Why they feel they have to, at this point, says more than Morelli ever could.

Jeff Rice covers Penn State football for the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4609 or jrice@centredaily.com.

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