Going into the Outback Bowl a lot of the pundits had a litany of reasons why the Nittany Lions could not possibly beat the Tennessee Volunteers. Let's explore some of those reasons and do a little myth busting.
Myth - Penn State cannot compete with the SEC "southern speed".
Busted - Penn State more than held their own against Tennessee in speed. In fact, I think Penn State showed more team speed than Tennessee in this game. On the first play of the game Deon Butler burnt Antwan Stewart for a 27 yard gain down the sideline. There were similar examples of team speed throughout the game. Golden getting behind the secondary for a big catch. Poz and Tim Shaw running down Coker from behind. Tony Davis streaking 88 yards on the fumble recovery. The only example of Tennessee blowing Penn State away with speed was Coker's 42 yard touchdown run.
Busted - What was expected to be a clear advantage for Tennessee ended up being either a push or slight win for Penn State. Justin King blanketed Robert Meachem all day limiting him to 4 catches and 33 yards. Swain had the better game with 7 catches and 84 yards as Tennessee chose to pick on Tony Davis all day. Davis did well keeping Swain in front of him and limiting his YAC with the exception of the one missed tackle in the first quarter.
Anthony Scirrotto once again was a play maker. He took away a big play to Swain by laying him out and knocking the ball away. He also came up big with an interception of Ainge, something nobody has done since mid October.
The final line for Ainge: 25-of-37, 267 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT. That's a win for Penn State.
Myth - Anthony Morelli chokes under pressure.
Busted - The players and coaches raved in the leadup to the Outback Bowl that Anthony Morelli was on a mission to prove himself and practiced extremely well against the first team defense. It showed on the field as Morelli looked sharp from beginning to end. He was hitting receivers in stride all day making good decisions.
He showed signs of maturity early in the second quarter. With Penn State down by 3, the Lions had the ball on 3rd and 14 at the UT 17. Morelli avoided the rush and rolled to his right looking for a receiver. Earlier in the year he would have thrown across the field into coverage, thrown it up for grabs, or ran backwards taking a 15 yard loss. But yesterday he wisely threw it away giving his kicker an easy kick and taking the points.
His final line was 14-for-25, 197 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT. Not eye popping numbers, but he did everything he was asked to do and if not for some dropped passes it would have looked better.
Busted - After coming up short against Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Penn State finally got over the hump.
Earlier in the year I said every team trying to build a contender has a signature win at some point. A win that changes the perception of the players, the fans, and their opponents. A win that makes people notice and takes them from being perceived as an also-ran to a contender. If Penn State goes on to great things in 2007, we may look back on this game as that signature win.