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October 12, 2006Preview: Michigan at Penn State
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Perhaps no 1,000-yard rusher from a BCS school sailed under the radar last season as much as Penn State's Tony Hunt.
Quarterback Michael Robinson collected most of the touchdowns. Butkus Award-winning linebacker Paul Posluszny earned most of the headlines.
Hunt simply went about his business and gained a team-high 1,047 yards amid little fanfare.
"I think I said earlier in the year that he is probably one of the most underrated backs in the country," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said.
Now that Hunt has emerged as arguably Penn State's most valuable player, his days of relative anonymity have ended.
While quarterback Anthony Morelli struggles with inconsistency in his first year as a starter, Hunt has developed into the heartbeat of Penn State's offense. The senior tailback has rushed for at least 135 yards in his last four games.
Hunt doesn't mind the extra publicity that has accompanied his recent success, but the lack of attention last year also never bothered him.
He understands that fans might prefer guys who possess the speed to go the distance on any play. Hunt is more of a grind-it-out runner whose contributions aren't obvious until you look at the stat sheet after the game.
"I understand it completely," Hunt said. "When I watch games, I like to see certain things happen. But when you're playing the game and being a part of a team, you just want to get the job done. People who really matter appreciate it ? the style we play ? as long as we get the job done."
He certainly has done that.
Hunt doesn't necessarily have breakaway ability ? his longest carry of the season is only 34 yards ? but he makes up for it with endurance. The more Hunt carries the ball, the stronger he gets.
That much became obvious last week.
Penn State's hopes of defending its Big Ten title would have virtually disintegrated with a loss at Minnesota. The Golden Gophers had just tied the game 14-14 when Penn State got the ball back early in the fourth quarter.
Hunt proceeded to get the ball eight times in a nine-play stretch ? including five carries in a row ? as the Nittany Lions went on an 82-yard touchdown drive. He scored the winning touchdown in overtime and finished the day with 144 yards on a career-high 31 carries.
Hunt's been wearing opposing defenses out all year.
He has run for 669 yards this season and ranks 11th in the nation with 111.5 rushing yards per game. Hunt moved into 10th place on Penn State's career rushing list last week and can enter the top five with a second consecutive 1,000-yard season.
"My brother was a running back, and I've been around a lot of running backs,'' said sophomore wide receiver Derrick Williams, the younger sibling of former North Carolina letterman Domonique Williams. "And (Hunt's) the best I've ever seen."
Now comes his biggest test yet.
As good as Hunt looked last week, he was facing a Minnesota team that had the Big Ten's worst rushing defense at the time. This week he must deal with a Michigan defense that ranks first in the nation against the run.
The Wolverines have allowed just 1.7 yards per carry all season. Notre Dame's Darius Walker and Wisconsin's P.J. Hill ? two of the nation's better tailbacks - couldn't combine for 100 rushing yards against Michigan.
"They have got some kids who can play really well and are in good position and well coached," Paterno said. "They are very similar to Ohio State."
Then again, Hunt rushed for 135 yards against Ohio State last month as part of his remarkable four-game run.
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr knows Hunt well enough to realize the importance of slowing him down. Hunt gained 102 yards on just 14 carries against the Wolverines last season.
"We tried to recruit him here," Carr said. "I thought for a minute we were going to get him."
Indeed, Hunt had narrowed his choices down to Penn State and Michigan before deciding to head east.
"I thought Michigan was a really good school and liked the tradition there," Hunt said. "I ultimately felt more comfortable at Penn State.''
He has grown increasingly comfortable as his senior year has worn on. Hunt is the first Penn State player since Larry Johnson in 2002 to rush for at least 100 yards four consecutive times.
He now will try to become the first Penn State player to reach the century mark in five straight games since Curtis Enis, who rushed for at least 100 yards in each of his last eight regular-season games in 1997.
A fifth straight 100-yard effort could help Penn State avenge its only loss from a year ago. Michigan defeated Penn State 27-25 last year when Mario Manningham caught a 10-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game.
Hunt isn't citing personal goals or a revenge motive when he discusses the importance of this game. Instead of worrying about what happened last year, Hunt is emphasizing the need for Penn State to make a statement this year.
Penn State already got blown out by Notre Dame and failed to hold a halftime lead against Ohio State. This represents one more opportunity for the Nittany Lions to prove they have regained their status as a national power.
"We need to come out with a big win against a big-name team," Hunt said. "This is our chance right here."
Penn State's best chance likely involves keeping the game close enough for Hunt to make a difference in the fourth quarter.
He prepared himself in the offseason for this very scenario. Knowing he was about to inherit a greater workload, Hunt started practicing harder and eating better to make sure he was strong enough to carry a team down the stretch.
"It helps out a lot, when you get that many carries late in ballgames, to have a little juice left to finish games off and finish runs off," Hunt said.
Penn State's closer now finds himself working more this season.
Hunt averaged 15.8 carries per game in the regular season last year before a sprained ankle knocked him out of the Orange Bowl early. He has averaged 27.7 rushes per game the last three weeks.
Paterno acknowledged the Nittany Lions may have to monitor the back's workload the rest of the season.
"We have to be careful with Hunt," Paterno said. "There is no question. You carry the ball 31 times (against Minnesota) and he didn't make a nickel on the outside. Every yard he made, he made inside. He's tough."
The national media may not have mentioned Hunt's name much last season.
But his coaches are calling it quite often this year.
(Nate Bauer of BlueWhiteIllustrated.com contributed to this report. For more coverage of the Penn State Nittany Lions, check out BlueWhiteIllustrated.com.)