STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) -After Joe Paterno, Anthony Morelli might have the second-toughest job in Happy Valley.
It's no surprise then that Penn State's head coach stuck up for his quarterback in the days leading up to Morelli's last regular-season start, Saturday at Michigan State.
``Anthony has had a tough time at Penn State, and mostly because of the media,'' Paterno said. ``I think nobody has given Anthony Morelli the credit he deserves.''
Morelli has certainly compiled some gaudy statistics since taking over as the starter last season. The strong-armed senior has become the first quarterback in Penn State history to throw for 2,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. Morelli is tied for third in school history with 11 career 200-yard passing games.
Perhaps most impressively, Morelli is 360 yards shy of breaking the single-season Penn State mark of 2,679 set by Kerry Collins in 1994.
``He's got one of the strongest arms I've seen,'' receiver Deon Butler, the recipient of many of Morelli's passes, said Wednesday. ``It'll be great looking back, when you see him up top and say that I played with him.''
Morelli seems to have benefited from a second year of experience, relying more at times on touch passes than rifle throws to get balls to receivers. He's also shown more ability to sense and escape pressure in the pocket.
Yet some fans of the Nittany Lions (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) aren't impressed.
Morelli appears sometimes to get flustered under pressure, leading to some ugly throws. He has fumbled at least a couple times while scrambling out of the pocket.
So, some fans have resorted to one of Happy Valley's favorite pastimes - calling for the backup quarterback.
``Just from going through this year, it's tough playing quarterback. You get blamed for a lot of things that aren't your fault,'' said receiver Terrell Golden, a co-captain with Morelli and linebacker Dan Connor.
Golden said critics may not see mistakes by other players that may instead be blamed on the quarterback. For example, a receiver may run the wrong route, or a breakdown in pass protection might lead Morelli to rush a throw.
Teammates have backed Morelli up all season, Golden said.
``It's definitely tough to play quarterback here. You're under the microscope,'' Golden said. ``Everybody wants you to do well, and if you don't they'll let you hear about it.''
Morelli's play may be critical for Penn State's chances Saturday at Michigan State. The Spartans have a potent offense which could pose trouble for a Penn State defense that, at times, has been vulnerable through the air.
That means the offense could be asked to keep up in a shootout or hold the ball long enough to give the defense a breather.
``We're hoping, confident that our defense will step up,'' said Butler, who has a team-high 506 receiving yards. ``But as an offense, of course we want to score a lot of points.''
Morelli sets the pace, though he's had a couple things ``get to him a couple times this season,'' Butler said. ``He's been more of a leader this year, keeping guys into the game even when other guys mess up.''
Like any coach, Paterno said he's on Morelli when the quarterback messes up. He said he treats Morelli like any other player.
``I kicked him in the rear end when I thought he needed a kick, and I stroked him when I thought he needed it,'' Paterno said. ``I have a good relationship with Morelli. I just wish everybody in the country and the media would appreciate just how good of a quarterback he's been.''
Note: Connor was named a semifinalist Wednesday for the Walter Camp Football Foundation Player of the Year Award. The senior linebacker is also a finalist for the Butkus Award to the nation's best linebacker and a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award, given the best defensive player overall.
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