Instant Analysis: Outback Bowl

Staff Columnist
Posted Jan 1, 2007

The Lion in Winter, Joseph Vincent Paterno, can evidently win bowl games even when he's not in the press box. Moreover, he still owns the Tennessee Volunteers in the month of January.

One play--a fumble returned 88 yards by Penn State's Tony Davis--decided this tilt in Tampa, but the bigger story of this contest was the inspired effort put forth by the Nittany Lions. Playing with a raging internal fire that smoked the sons of Smokey, Penn State outfought the highly-touted Volunteers. With a huge chip on their shoulders, the Lions came up with a fierce and furious performance that bolstered the cause of the Big Ten while giving Joe Paterno his 22nd career bowl victory. With the win, Penn State's 80-year-old coach scored his third bowl win over Tennessee in as many tries, dating back to the 1992 Fiesta Bowl.

It was apparent from the start that Penn State wanted this game a lot more than the sluggish Volunteers did. While Tennessee's Arian Foster fumbled on the play that gave Penn State its breakthrough win, it's instructive to note that one of Foster's teammates, running back Montario Hardesty, fumbled on Tennessee's first rushing attempt of the whole game. For all 60 minutes of this football fistfight, it was the Lions who displayed vastly superior ball security and fundamental soundness. With better field goal kicking (just like the 2006 Orange Bowl against Florida State), JoePa's boys would have taken care of business much more quickly. But even then, the Lions were still able to defeat an opponent that took LSU to the final seconds of play with a backup quarterback.

Speaking of backup quarterbacks, that's what Nittany Lion signal caller Anthony Morelli looked like in the 2006 regular season. Penn State's starter under center endured a lot of growing pains--so many, in fact, that he absorbed a lot of intense criticism despite being charged with filling the very large shoes of departed quarterback Michael Robinson. Morelli erupted during the down period before this game, fed up with the relentless attacks on his limitations as a player, and more specifically, his intelligence in reading defenses. On the first day of 2007, Morelli put the demons of the past year behind him, playing with noticeable wisdom while displaying considerable accuracy as a passer. Moved outside the pocket by offensive coordinator Galen Hall, Morelli took advantage of the open passing lanes that emerged for him. He completed passes by using both zip and touch in his best effort as a Nittany Lion. The sharpness and the emotional leadership provided by Morelli were instrumental in carrying Penn State to victory.

As well as Morelli played under the guidance of his offensive coordinator, the Penn State defense--under coordinator Tom Bradley--did even more to lift the Lions into the winner's circle. Bradley--the acting sideline coach while Paterno looked on from the press box--employed a brilliant game plan that shut down the deep ball for Tennessee's passing attack. Volunteer quarterback Erik Ainge had to check down constantly and settle for short gains. When the Lions' front seven stopped the Vols' ground game, the Children of the Checkerboard were checkmated. The winning fumble return was just one of a great many plays in which Penn State hit harder and concentrated more fully than the Volunteers, who--with Ainge healthy after midseason injuries--figured to regain their polish and precision on offense. Yes, the loss of receiver Bret Smith undoubtedly hurt Tennessee, but with Ainge back in the saddle and rested, the Big Orange boys still littered Raymond James Stadium with a boatload of mistakes that drowned the Volunteer Navy against a better-coached opponent.

Penn State didn't have a signature win to hang its hat on when the 2006 regular season ended. The Lions--on the first day of 2007--quickly snapped up a hat rack... and a JoePa hat trick in bowl games agaisnt Tennessee.

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