Plenty of anticipation for Navy's Howell, Zuzek

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Sports,College,Kevin Dunleavy

Pa. natives are excited to play at Penn State

Over the last few weeks, Navy starters John Howell and Jake Zuzek have heard from plenty of well-wishers back home. A few of them have followed Navy football closely -- but not necessarily because they have become fans of the Midshipmen.

Howell and Zuzek grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and played at Catholic high schools, and virtually everyone they knew rooted for Notre Dame or Penn State.

Up next
Navy at Penn State
When » Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Where » Beaver Stadium,
State College, Pa.
TV » ESPN2

This year, Navy opened in Ireland against annual rival Notre Dame, losing 50-10. On Saturday, the Mids travel to Penn State for a rare meeting with the Nittany Lions. The last time the teams met was 1974.

"I was a Penn State fan growing up. Half of my friends are Notre Dame. Half of my friends are Penn State," said Zuzek, a sophomore guard. "The week before, I was getting texts that would say, 'We're rooting for you, but we want Notre Dame to win.' I'm getting the same thing this week."

Even though Philadelphia is three-and-a-half hours from State College, Howell, a senior slot back, views the game as a homecoming.

"I'd say 75 percent of my graduating class went to Penn State," Howell said. "You'd go down to the [New Jersey] shore, and you'd see Penn State flags everywhere. Everyone I talk to is a Penn State fan."

Zuzek has anticipated the game since he entered the academy. His only regret is that he won't see Joe Paterno on the opposite sideline. The legendary coach died early this year, within months of being fired during the 2011 season in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.

"Growing up, I watched JoePa run out on the field every Saturday, watched Penn State play and Dan Connors play -- he went to Strath Haven close to where I live and is in the NFL now," Zuzek said. "Being able to go there and play, not many of my friends can say that."

Howell has been to a few games in Beaver Stadium, calling it "electrifying." He will have 45 friends and family members among the anticipated crowd of more than 90,000. Zuzek said he has made deals with teammates to secure 18 tickets.

Both Howell, a product of Lansdale Catholic, and Zuzek, who played at West Philadelphia Catholic, went to camps annually at Penn State, though neither was able to attract the attention of the Nittany Lions coaches.

But the program Zuzek and Howell rooted for as kids bears little resemblance to the current edition. It has been weakened by the loss of 11 players who transferred out in the aftermath of the scandal. The Nittany Lions were toppled in their opener by Ohio of the Mid-American Conference 24-14. On Saturday, Penn State played better at Virginia but missed four of five field goal tries in a 17-16 defeat.

"I still look at them the same way. To me they're always like Linebacker Nation," Howell said. "You've got a bunch of guys who have nothing to lose. They lost a heartbreaker last weekend. They're gonna come out [ticked] off."

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com

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