Morelli can silence critics against Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- I couldn't speak to Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli this week. I couldn't talk to quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno or even his father, coach Joe Paterno himself. It seems JoePa wanted nothing to do with the media as his No. 19 Nittany Lions prepared to play No. 4 Notre Dame at sold-out Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.

So, alas, I can't confirm with absolutely certainty that Morelli can spell "cat," even after spotting him the "c" and the "t."

Sound familiar? More than a quarter-century ago, as the Dallas Cowboys prepared to play the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIII, Cowboys linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson famously ridiculed Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw by saying, "He couldn't spell 'cat' if you spotted him the 'c' and the 't.'"

Early in his NFL career, Bradshaw's intelligence was questioned because of his rural roots and Southern twang (he grew up in Shreveport, La.) and, more than anything else, his abundance of interceptions.

Morelli, who grew up in the same city where Bradshaw silenced critics by leading the Steelers to an unprecedented four Super Bowl titles, faced dogged questions about his intelligence during his first two seasons at Penn State.

One of the country's most decorated high school quarterbacks at Penn Hills High School in Pittsburgh, Morelli faced enormous expectations when he joined the struggling Nittany Lions in 2004.

He was widely ranked the country's second-best high school quarterback, behind former Oklahoma quarterback Rhett Bomar and ahead of more accomplished college quarterbacks such as Michigan's Chad Henne, Louisville's Brian Brohm, Florida State's Drew Weatherford and Arizona State's Rudy Carpenter.

Morelli played in the 2004 opener against Akron and immediately seemed destined to replace quarterbacks Zach Mills and Michael Robinson, neither of whom had proved capable of leading the Nittany Lions back to the upper echelon of college football. Morelli dazzled Penn State's coaches with his rocket arm and lightning-quick release. A 6-foot-4, 220-pound passer, he appeared destined to lift the Nittany Lions out of the doldrums of Paterno's dull offense.

But then the cheering stopped and the lofty expectations turned to anxiety.

Morelli played in five games as a freshman, completing fewer than 40 percent of his passes and often throwing into double coverage. Before the 2005 season, Morelli was unable to unseat Robinson as the team's starting quarterback and played sparingly in six games. Robinson led the Nittany Lions to an 11-1 record, after they won just seven games the previous two seasons combined, and was named the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player.

But even as Penn State celebrated its return to national prominence, Nittany Lions fans worried about the program's future at quarterback. No one has ever questioned Morelli's arm strength. When Morelli was 9 years old, he fired a 50-yard pass at halftime of a Steelers game and won the NFL's Punt, Pass and Kick competition. He duplicated that feat the following year.

At Penn Hills High School, Morelli threw for more than 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in the same prep league that produced five Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks -- George Blanda, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino -- as well as Johnny Lujack, the 1947 Heisman Trophy winner as Notre Dame's quarterback.

But the whispers about Morelli were as loud as Joe Paterno's shouts at officials. Was Morelli a quarterback with a million-dollar arm and a 10-cent head? Or, worse, was he another Jeff George?

Unable to beat out lesser-talented quarterbacks in his first two seasons at Penn State, many Nittany Lions figured Morelli couldn't read a defense, make split-second decisions under defensive pressure or decipher offensive game plans. Many Penn State fans wondered aloud whether Morelli was, well, smart enough to play quarterback.

"I get tired of it, but it doesn't bother me anymore," Morelli told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in August. "If anything, I just can't wait to get out on the field and prove people wrong. I've been hearing that since I was in high school. Whoever started that, it doesn't matter to me. It's always been around. I don't know if it was people from high school or what. It doesn't matter. I'm the quarterback at Penn State now. I just want to help my team win games."

That's what Morelli did in the Nittany Lions' opener against Akron last week. In his first college start, he completed his first pass attempt for a 42-yard touchdown to Deon Butler in Penn State's
34-16 victory. Morelli completed 16 of 32 passes for 206 yards with three touchdowns. More important, he didn't throw an interception and wasn't sacked in rain-soaked conditions.

"I thought Morelli did a real good job early and then he got a little bit careless in his reads," Joe Paterno said during his news conference with reporters earlier this week. "But I think overall it was a good first game."

Jay Paterno told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Morelli's evolution hasn't been slower than expected. Morelli played in a run-oriented offense at Penn Hills High and wasn't asked to make multiple reads or checks at the line of scrimmage. Paterno said Morelli's intelligence had nothing to do with his slow start in college.

"I've told people the only reason he's gotten that rap is because he's Italian. And I resent that," Jay Paterno told the newspaper, jokingly. "People have asked me that question, and it's one of those things that has no basis of truth."

In his first road start on Saturday, Morelli will attempt to do what Georgia's Tech Reggie Ball couldn't do against Notre Dame: exploit a Fighting Irish secondary that ranked 103rd in pass defense in Division I-A last season. With big-play weapons such as Butler, Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood, the Nittany Lions figure to test Notre Dame's defense more than the Yellow Jackets' pedestrian offense did.

The Fighting Irish's much-maligned defense allowed only 259 yards and shut out the Yellow Jackets in the second half of their 14-10 victory in Atlanta.

"I think if you give this guy time to throw, you better look out because this kid has a cannon for an arm," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "He's tall and can stand there and see things. It's not very encouraging as the coach of the opposing team when the guy's first pass goes for a touchdown. That didn't exactly lift my spirits."

Morelli's solid performance in the opener has lifted Penn State's spirits. If he plays well in the shadows of Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome in one of college football's most-anticipated games of the season -- the Fighting Irish and Nittany Lions haven't played in 14 years -- maybe then people will stop questioning the junior quarterback's IQ.

"We'll see what happens when he has to go to a little more hostile environment," Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski said. "But he's got a strong arm, a very strong arm."

That's what they've always said about Morelli.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.