Breaking down the fall's most gripping quarterback battles. Part of Big Ten Week.
• The System. When it's viable, Penn State remains a fundamentally old-school, run-first team that will always prefer a well-blocked iso over a bubble screen: 70 percent of the Nittany Lions' pass attempts in 2010 came when they were tied or trailing on the scoreboard, which helps explain how a less-than-legendary back like Evan Royster can still wind up breaking the school rushing record. But the Lions have vastly expanded the playbook over the last decade to incorporate a wide range of talents at quarterback — from the electric Michael Robinson to the ponderous Anthony Morelli to the steady Daryll Clark — even turning to frequent spread sets and the zone read out of the shotgun when necessary. Whoever they got back there, they're willing to work with him.
For the guy who emerges from the current crop, that still means keeping him out of trouble. None of the quartet of QBs vying for the job in the spring exactly recalls Robinson with his legs, or Kerry Collins with his arm, most likely meaning another year of leaning heavily on the tailbacks when things are under control and holding breath-holding when they're not.
• The Overachiever: Matt McGloin. This time last year, McGloin's unofficial title all press accounts was "former walk-on," and even he was forced to admit that he understood fans' failure to rally around a guy whose best scholarship offer out of high school was to Youngstown State. Despite his persistent presence in the preseason race, McGloin didn't attempt a pass in the first six games, and everyone seemed basically OK with that.
After watching his progress over the last six games, they'd probably be OK with McGloin not attempting a pass in 2011, either, though no one would have suggested that after his first two starts. With true freshman Robert Bolden on the bench with a concussion, McGloin connected for five touchdown passes and no interceptions in high-scoring wins over Michigan and Northwestern, added flashes of a sentient arm to his solid grasp of the offense and was suddenly entrenched for the rest of the season.
Predictably, the fast start began to go off the rails a week later at Ohio State, where a 14-3 Penn State lead at the half dissolved with not just one but two Buckeye interceptions returned for touchdowns in the second half:
For Lion fans, McGloin's collapse in Columbus was eerily reminiscent of the worst of Anthony Morelli; with his five-interception meltdown in an Outback Bowl loss to Florida, their worst fears about his potential against upper-class defenses seemed to be confirmed. If you watch Ahmad Black's game-clinching pick-six with a little over a minute to go in the fourth quarter closely enough, you can actually see the starting job go up for grabs.
• The Young Gun: Rob Bolden. Somehow, Bolden didn't set foot on the field in that game, leaving him feeling neglected enough to begin seeking out the first bus out of town within a few hours of the loss. Joe Paterno was able to ward off a transfer by admitting Bolden should have had a shot against the Gators and promising an honest competition in the spring.
But don't confuse Bolden's ongoing presence on the roster as any kind of guarantee that he's back in the saddle on opening day. There's a reason coaches decided to keep him on the bench in the first place: Bolden finished his debut season as the least efficient passer among regular Big Ten starters, largely thanks to dreadful efforts in losses to Alabama, Iowa and Illinois; against whom the Nittany Lions combined for 19 points and a single touchdown. Before he was knocked out of the lineup in the seventh game, the Lions ranked dead last in the conference in both total and scoring offense.
Bolden's great advantage, of course, is his youth. He's the first true freshman in a million years to start a season opener for a Paterno-coached team, a distinction he earned mainly through sheer talent a few weeks after arriving on campus. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Bolden certainly looks the part, and with a year under his belt and three more to go, has the best chance of growing into the job with each new snap.
• The Wild Card(s): Paul Jones and Kevin Newsome. That said, if the decision was based purely on talent, the job may already be in the hands of Kevin Newsome or Paul Jones, who both arrived with nearly identical recruiting hype as Bolden and had a head start on him at the beginning of preseason practices last August: Jones had enrolled early and impressed in the spring, and how Newsome managed to lose his grasp on a job that was his for the taking as a true sophomore is one of the enduring mysteries of the 2010 season.
They both have NFL size; both can move; both have big arms. And the fact that they both remained planted on the bench throughout McGloin and Bolden's struggles last year is a pretty good indication that they both have no idea what's going on in the offense. At least Newsome is beginning to live up to the hype as a rapper.
"I'm totally different," said Bolden, who became the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener under Joe Paterno last September. "I felt like I was good coming out of high school and right now I feel like I have an opportunity.
"I'm watching film and getting better with those things. I feel like I've gotten a lot smarter. I feel like my arm's a lot stronger. I'm a completely different guy from last year."
"It hasn't been tough at all. I'm not worried about [alienating teammates with transfer rumors] at all," he said. "I'm here taking classes, having fun, getting with my guys on the team. I'm taking it in stride and trying to get better, getting my game up anyway possible. I'm in the film room just about every day. I've watched every game from last year three or four times, trying to pick everybody's brain so I can be better in the future."
Make no mistake: Bolden struggled dramatically over the first half of his freshman season and spent the second half on the bench. With the growing pains behind him and a new outlook, though, he gives PSU the best chance to exploit the disarray at Ohio State in pursuit of the first Leaders Division title. And at the very least, he keeps the offense from being permanently tethered to the uninspiring McGloin, or from enduring another round of growing pains under Jones.
There aren't any ideal options here. But under the circumstances, the ones involving Bolden evolving into a viable Big Ten starter are as close as the Lions are going to get.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.