Focus Now Turns to Fighting Irish

An opening win behind them, the Nittany Lions are now free to talk about Week No. 2 foe Notre Dame. Starting receiver Deon Butler views the trip to South Bend as a benchmark game for the 2006 season.

Penn State players and coaches said all the right things leading up to last weekend's season opener against Akron at Beaver Stadium. They were focused on the Zips, everyone insisted, and one had the sense few even realized the following week would bring a monster road tilt with No. 2 Notre Dame.

And though the Nittany Lions did methodically dispatch overmatched Akron, overcoming a host of week-one mistakes to win 34-16 in a game whose outcome was never in question, we knew as long ago as early summer that the Fighting Irish were their early-season focus.

“There are so many big games this season. It is going to be a great experience, especially that Notre Dame game early,” linebacker Dan Connor said back in June. “For the young guys to get that under their belts — a big game, on TV — I think that will help us later.”

In the Akron postgame, the facade of not thinking about the Notre Dame game came down for everyone.

“That's our swagger game,” said wideout Deon Butler, who was on the receiving end of a first-quarter bomb from junior quarterback Anthony Morelli that put the Zips in an early hole. “Last year, the Ohio State game [a 17-10 PSU win] was our swagger game. Once we beat those guys … everybody knew how good Ohio State was, and after that they knew we could play with anybody. That's how I feel this year about Notre Dame; great ball club, top three in every poll. It's a team that when you play with them, you're playing with the big boys.”

With 13 starters gone from an outfit that went 11-1, captured the Big Ten title and finished third in the national polls last season, Saturday afternoon's game in South Bend should be an eye-opener for the new faces in key places at Penn State. The Lions entered the season at No. 19.

Morelli is in his first year as starting QB. There are four new starters on the offensive line and just as many in the secondary. First- and second-year players provide depth all over the field.

One of the new starters is sophomore linebacker Sean Lee.

“I'm extremely excited,” he said of this week's game. “I think it is the dream of all young football players to play in South Bend, to play in a game with so much value to it. They're a great team and they have a lot of prestige, but they're football players just like us. We're gonna go out and see who is better.”

It may not seem like it, but Butler, a starter at receiver who led the team with nine TD catches in 2005, is only in his second year of eligibility, as well. He leads a young, athletic pass-catching corps many consider to be among the best in the nation.

But the Fighting Irish air attack, led by quarterback Brady Quinn and receiver Jeff Samardzija, comes with much greater hype, even after struggling in last weekend's 14-10 opening win at Georgia Tech.

Butler wants to prove he and his fellow receivers are in the same league.

“Hopefully, we'll go out and play a good game,” he explained. “Those guys out there, they deserve their attention. They're probably doing the same thing we are, watching a lot of film. They're really smart guys.

“Basically, we want to go out and play our game and win,” he added. “Whoever the media wants to love really doesn't bother us. If we go out and play our game, I think we'll show a lot of people.”

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