Once the 100,000-plus blue-clad Penn State fans watch Eric Decker catch his first couple of passes for Minnesota tomorrow at Beaver Stadium, they're going to wish that he had decided to go play baseball with the Twins when presented with the chance.
Decker, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior for the Golden Gophers, is the best wide receiver in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country. His level of skill will make him a lot of money in the NFL someday, so he decided to pass last summer after the Twins selected the outfielder in the 27th round of the baseball draft.
Decker has that special knack for repeatedly getting open, making the tough catch, and picking up additional yardage even as opposing defenses devise methods to stop him. That fun responsibility tomorrow belongs to Tom Bradley, defensive coordinator for the 14th-ranked Nittany Lions, under the eye of Joe Paterno.
"You've always got to be aware of the superior wideouts such as Decker," Paterno said. "Decker is a great football player. There's a great chemistry with him and the quarterback [Adam Weber]. The quarterback has so much confidence in him, he'll make throws to him that you ordinarily wouldn't make.
"You got to know where he is all the time. If you don't, he'll catch seven, eight, 10 passes for a lot of yards and a couple of scores."
Decker has caught 46 passes for 689 yards and five touchdowns this season. He ranks seven in the nation in receptions (7.8 per game) and ninth in yards (114.8). He holds Minnesota career records for catches (223) and yards (3,050).
But to the members of the Penn State secondary who have watched horror films of Decker this week, it's more than raw physical skills that make him successful.
"He's just so big and strong," sophomore cornerback D'Anton Lynn said. "He's always aggressive. I've never seen a receiver go after the ball and aggressively get it like that. You have to always watch where he is. He lines up at wide receiver, but he also can line up at tight end or in the backfield. He's so important to their passing game."
"He's a passionate player on the field," added senior corner A.J. Wallace. "He plays with a lot of emotion. The key for us is to go out and match his passion and aggressiveness. He wants to go out there against you and win every matchup but we want to win every matchup. With two players going at it like that, it's going to be a good matchup."
Decker, who hails from Cold Spring, Minn., considered how he wanted to direct that passion when trying to decide between football and baseball as a career.
"That excitement on Saturdays, you can't find that anywhere else," Decker told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in the preseason. "Going to Ohio State, going to Penn State . . . you can't replace that. Every week, it's a buildup to the game.
"In baseball, it's all about keeping yourself at a constant pace. In football, you build, build, build and boom. There is nothing like it. That's what I love about the game. It's so passionate."
Minnesota coach Tim Brewster calls Decker "the best, the most complete wide receiver in the country."
"It's really fun, each and every week, thinking about different ways in which we can utilize Eric," Brewster said. "It's not always as a pass receiver, not always as a thrower, sometimes as a decoy.
"He's an amazing guy off the field. He's an amazing player on the field. Every week he just goes out and plays extremely well. We know that the opponent obviously is game-planning, trying to slow him down, and he continues to do the things that great players do each and every week."
The Nittany Lions hope to fortify their blitz this week with the return of linebacker Sean Lee. Paterno said on his radio show last night that "if I had to make a bet, he'll play some Saturday . . . but we don't want to put him in a position where he gets tired and takes a step back."
Nittany notes. Former Penn State running back Austin Scott has filed suit in federal court in Williamsport against 12 defendants, including the university, Centre County, and the woman who accused him of rape in 2007. Scott said in the civil suit that charges against him, which were dropped almost seven months after his arrest, prevented him from pursuing an NFL career.