D'Anton Lynn, Penn State's senior cornerback, admits to fleeting thoughts of worst-case scenarios after he sustained what later was described as "concussion symptoms" while making a tackle late in the third quarter of the Nittany Lions' 34-6 rout of Eastern Michigan on Sept. 24 in Beaver Stadium.
But there were initial fears that Lynn had sustained potentially catastrophic neck and spinal-cord injuries, reviving memories of the horrific incident during the 2000 season when another Penn State cornerback, Adam Taliaferro, lay crumpled on the field at Ohio State. Although Taliaferro beat the odds to walk again, he never played another down of football.
Lynn, who missed only two games and returned to action in last week's 23-18 homecoming victory over Purdue, will be in the lineup when Penn State visits Northwestern tomorrow night for a game that could go a long way toward determining if the Lions (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten) are as good as their record suggests, or merely the beneficiaries of several tight but victorious contests that could have gone the other way.
No one, of course, has to tell the 6-1, 210-pound Lynn, from Celina, Texas, how fortunate he is. Taken to Mount Nittany Medical Center after being removed from the field in the Eastern Michigan game, he was released later that evening with the encouraging news that he could expect to make a full recovery in fairly short order.
"I talked to the doctors and knew I would play again," said Lynn, whose father, Anthony Lynn, is the running backs coach for the New York Jets. "I just didn't know how long I'd be out. They thought it'd be longer than what it was. I'm just grateful the process was faster than they thought."
Lynn admits to being somewhat tentative against the Boilermakers. It wasn't until he was involved in his first big hit, in the fourth quarter, that he realized he was out of danger and could get back to playing his normally aggressive game.
"I went out there wanting to play full speed," Lynn, who had not previously missed a game during his Penn State career, said of receiving the medical clearance that didn't fully remove all the lingering doubts he was harboring. "But in the back of my mind I was a little timid. Once I got that first big hit, though, everything was fine. I kind of forgot [the injury] ever happened. I relaxed; I wasn't nervous about anything."
The Eastern Michigan game also marked the forced departure of standout linebacker Michael Mauti, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and will miss the remainder of the season. But Penn State, which is tied for fifth nationally in scoring defense, giving up only 10.5 points per game, had fifth-year senior Nate Stupar available to fill in for Mauti, making for a minimal dropoff in production.
Lynn would have been more difficult to replace. He had started 30 straight games until having to sit out against Indiana and Iowa, which left defensive coordinator Tom Bradley a bit nervous.
"D'Anton is the heart and soul of our secondary," Bradley said of Lynn, twice an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection. "He's a 3-year starter, and he does everything the right way."
Lynn will have to keep doing everything the right way against a dangerous Northwestern team that is much better, at least on offense, than its four-game losing streak and 0-3 Big Ten record might indicate. In last week's 41-31 loss at Iowa, the Wildcats had 495 yards in total offense and converted 16 of 22 third downs. The big problem for coach Pat Fitzgerald's team has been a porous pass defense that is especially susceptible to the deep ball.
The implication is that Penn State has the advantage in a low-scoring game, with a shootout favoring Northwestern.
"They do a good job of finding open space," Lynn said of the Wildcats' wide receivers. "They make 4- and 5-yard catches, then come in over the top. You have to be patient, you can't get frustrated. You have to know when to take your chances, and when not to."
3 things to look for *
The Northwestern secondary to be bolstered by the return of safeties David Arnold and Jared Carpenter, both of whom had been out with injuries.
* Eagles backup quarterback Mike Kafka, who played at Northwestern, to be on the Wildcats' sideline during this bye week for his NFL team.
* If ever there was a time to have ultrafast Penn State wide receiver Devon Smith go long, this might be the week. Smith's speed isn't fully utilized on the bubble screens and reverses that have become his niche.
Penn State 35, Northwestern 27.