I just wanted to thank all the fans for coming down here and supporting us, Morelli said afterward. They traveled all the way down to Tampa, and they didn't have to do that on New Year's. They went out of their way to come down here to support us. I felt like I had to tell them thanks.
It was a fitting gesture. Those fans may have come a long way for him, but Morelli is in the process of reciprocating. He's coming a long way for them.
Or so everyone in the Penn State football program hopes. The junior quarterback looked more assured against Tennessee in the Outback Bowl than he did during the regular season. On the game's first play from scrimmage, he threw to Deon Butler for a 27-yard gain. It was the start of something reasonably big. Morelli went on to complete 14 of 25 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown.
His performance, though not statistically overwhelming, left coaches and teammates feeling encouraged as they look ahead to a 2007 season, a season in which Penn State will be expected to go bowling somewhere more picturesque than Tampa.
He really ran the team, quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said. He was in that huddle getting on people. Even at the end of the game when we were running the ball, he was after them, saying, 'Come on, let's go, let's put this thing away.'
Morelli saw the Lions' 20-10 victory as a measure of vindication after a challenging season in which he took the fall for Penn State's intermittent offensive woes. He completed 53.7 percent of his passes for 2,227 yards in the regular season, with 10 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. But he wasn't able to rally the offense in losses to Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Nor was he able to avoid the spotlight during the Lions' downtime leading up to the Tennessee game. In December, Morelli was scrutinized anew after charging that his former high school coach had hurt his recruitment by spreading stories that he couldn't read defenses. It was a bombshell, and it landed at the feet of one of the most respected coaches in western Pennsylvania — Neil Gordon of Penn Hills High in suburban Pittsburgh. There was no avoiding the controversy that followed.
Penn State's victory in the Outback Bowl refocused attention on Morelli himself, much to his relief.
This was the most fun I've had all season, he gushed. I had fun out there from the first play to the last play. I played loose the entire game. I felt like that was the only way to play.
The Penn State camp saw Morelli's performance not as a quantum leap forward — the Lions scored 13 points on offense, after all — but as the product of small refinements in the quarterback's game.
We worked a lot on footwork things so that he would be more accurate on a couple of passes, Paterno said. We spent a lot of times on reads and things like that.
We did a lot of extra work. Even the days we did not practice — you don't practice every day when you're in bowl prep — he would come over and we would take some wideouts out and break it down and review everything. We really made up our minds on a package [to use against Tennessee] early on, so we got a lot of reps.
Paterno recalled a coaches meeting in which defensive coordinator Tom Bradley noted that Tennessee's Erik Ainge averaged only one interception per 39 passing attempts. Paterno replied that Morelli's average during the regular season was even better — one interception per 45 passing attempts. That figure may underscore just how seriously Penn State's perpetual fear of interceptions impacts its play-calling. But the way Paterno sees it, it's also a sign that Morelli hasn't gotten his due.
There's been so much pressure on him, and so many people have been critical of him, he said. You've got to step back and look at it realistically. When we look at film and analyze it, he's done some good things. We didn't make some big catches sometimes, and there could have been better play-calling, and that might have gotten us over the hump in some of those close games. But I think for a guy who never started a game in college coming into this season, he did some really, really good things.