The Curious Career Of Zack Mills
Zack Mills is a name that rings a bell for countless Nittany Lion fans for a variety of reasons.
Some recognize him as the sophomore sensation who led Penn State to the Capital One bowl in 2002, only to fall short by a score of 13-9. Some recognize Mills as the quarterback Michael Robinson replaced in 2005, then went on to lead the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten Championship and an Orange Bowl title. Some recognize Mills as the quarterback under center for two of the worst seasons in recent memory for the Penn State football program. 2003 saw the program go 3-9, while 2004 was not much better, as the Nittany Lions finished with a record of 4-7. Joe Paterno’s position was in jeopardy, and it seemed as though the program had plunged into turmoil. The dark period Penn State entered during Mills’ tenure, as well as the players that succeeded him, make it easy to glance over his accomplishments. But they shouldn’t be forgotten, as his career is one of the most interesting in fairly recent Penn State history.
Mills began his career at Penn State as a redshirt freshman in 2001, playing the backup role to starting quarterback Matt Seneca. He had generated a fair share of hype in the preseason, thanks to his golden arm and running ability. Mills would not have to wait very long to display his skills, as Seneca struggled and was ultimately pulled in favor of the younger, inexperienced Mills. Mills struggled early on, and a quarterback controversy began to brew in Happy Valley. Mills’ big break would come against Ohio State, where he led the Nittany Lions in a comeback victory highlighted by his late 69-yard rushing touchdown. Mills followed up his remarkable performance with another one against Southern Mississippi, where he went 23-33 for 280 yards and two touchdowns. The Nittany Lions would go 4-7 that season, rendering them bowl ineligible.
Mills’ 2002 season was his best as a Nittany Lion. The team went 9-4, earning a berth in the Capitol One Bowl against the Auburn Tigers, while Mills appeared to have developed significantly. He threw for a then-record 399 yards against Iowa, and finished the year with a sophomore record 2,417 yards and 17 touchdowns. It was good to be Zack Mills. That was, until the game was played. Mills laid an egg against the Tigers, going 8-for-24, throwing for only 67 yards. He was completely ineffective, and his performance rendered the Nittany Lion offense incapacitated.
The 2002 season was the peak of Mills’ Nittany Lion career. The elation of the team’s success turned into misery as the 2003 season began. The 2003 Nittany Lions team was a shadow of its 2002 form. The team only won three games, one of which came in conference play. Nothing seemed to be going right in Happy Valley. After an opening day victory against the Temple Owls, the Nittany Lions plunged into disarray. Mills struggled mightily. His lone touchdown pass against Temple ended up being the only one he’d throw for the next five weeks, until the Nittany Lions played Iowa, where Mills managed one score in the loss. Mills’ season was a colossal disappointment, as he finished with only 1,404 yards and six touchdowns, paired with his five interceptions and a career low completion percentage of 54.2.
These two seasons reflected the career of Mills as a Nittany Lion: unquestioned talent, but inconsistent production. The failures of the 2003 Nittany Lions team can be blamed on numerous factors, but ultimately fell on the shoulders of Mills.
His senior season in 2004 would showcase remnants of the player that led the Nittany Lions to a bowl game two years prior, but nothing more than that. The team began 2-1 thanks to Mills’ mostly consistent play, with the loss to Boston College being the exception, as Mills was rocked, throwing four interceptions. The season was totally derailed once the Nittany Lions began conference play. The team suffered five consecutive losses, despite a few respectable outings from Mills. Any hope for success that built up in the offseason was shattered. The Nittany Lions ended the year on a high note with two consecutive wins against Northwestern and Michigan State, but to no avail, as the team finished 4-7, far from bowl eligibility. Mills finished the season with 1,722 yards, a career-high completion percentage of 57.8, and nine touchdowns.
The career of Zack Mills was a roller coaster ride no expert could have predicted when he arrived in 2000. He experienced the highs of success, and endured the losingest period in the program’s illustrious history. Through it all, he finished as Penn State’s career leader in yardage (7,212), passing completions (606), as well as passing attempts (1,082), all of which are records current Nittany Lion quarterback Christian Hackenberg could break during his Penn State tenure.
Mills was reached out to multiple times for this story, but we couldn’t get ahold of him. In the end, Zack Mills will be remembered for many reasons, and remains one of the most curious stories in the expansive history of Penn State football.