Mills accuracy, confidence returns in time for Northwestern
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Zack Mills has gotten his mojo back, just in time to go back to the place where he first found it.
The junior quarterback has looked sharp the past two weeks, even though Penn State lost against Iowa and Ohio State. In those two games combined, Mills completed 41 of 67 passes (61.2 percent) for 391 yards and two touchdowns.
Over the first five games this year, Mills had gone 50 for 105 (47.6 percent) for 496 yards and one touchdown. He sat out two games with a sprained left knee.
"I feel like everything's coming around," Mills said. "Everything's coming together, not just for myself but also for everyone else around me."
Last week was the first time this season that the Nittany Lions' passing game was a significant threat. With the two most experienced receivers -- senior Tony Johnson (suspension) and junior Gerald Smith (concussion) -- out of the game, youngsters Maurice Humphrey and Terrance Phillips stepped up.
Humphrey made a game-high seven catches for 64 yards against the Buckeyes. Phillips had a pair of grabs for 47 yards. Fullback Sean McHugh, playing despite a hip injury, had seven receptions, including one for a touchdown.
"Right now, we have a lot of confidence," Humphrey said. "Before, we were not relaxed and not confident. By the end of this week, going into Northwestern, we're going to be a lot better and have even more confidence."
Penn State (2-7, 0-5 Big Ten) takes on Northwestern (4-5, 2-3) at noon today. Two years ago, the last time the Lions visited Ryan Field, Mills came off the bench to direct a stunning, last-gasp touchdown drive.
Trailing 35-31 with 99 seconds to play, quarterback Matt Senneca was knocked out of the game with a concussion. With practically no time to warm up, Mills trotted out to the huddle.
"What's up, fellas?" he said. "You ready to take this in?"
Mills calmly connected on 5 of 8 passes, the last being a 4-yard TD toss to tailback Eric McCoo with 22 seconds left. The comeback snapped a four-game losing skid and enabled coach Joe Paterno to tie Bear Bryant with 323 career wins.
"I really haven't thought about that game much this week so far," Mills said Wednesday. "It was a great game; I remember that. I went in with a little bit of confidence and was able to convert some plays. I think that did a lot for the team and for myself. It was a huge win."
This season, the Lions are in an even worse spot than they were in 2001. They have lost five in a row for the first time in the Paterno era and have no hope of a bowl bid.
Today's game is the first time in more than a month that oddmakers have listed Penn State as the favorite.
"We want to send the seniors off on a decent note and we want to build toward next year," Mills said.
Northwestern must win two of its final three games to become bowl eligible. With games remaining against powerful Michigan and pathetic Illinois, today's contest is crucial for the Wildcats.
But while Mills is enjoying a resurgance, Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez has been inconsistent. Some observes are rumbling that coach Randy Walker should give redshirt freshman Alexander Webb a shot.
"Brett can look like a goat or he can look like God's gift to football," Wildcats coach Randy Walker said. "Brett Basanez is the best quarterback we have right now. Has he been everything we want• No, but there is no other posistion more dependent on others than the quarterback."
Basanez, a redshirt sophomore, has completed 55 pecent of his passes for 1,525 yards, but has just three touchdowns and nine interceptions. With three receivers out with injuries -- top wideout Roger Jordan is not expected to play today -- Northwestern has been forced to rely more on its running game.
Tailback Jason Wright is averaging nearly 100 yards per game and has scored 14 touchdowns but has been slowed lately by a sore ankle.