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Penn State Football: When Picking a Quarterback, Paterno is a Brooklyn Dodger

by on September 26, 2011 2:00 AM

For 69 years, quarterback has been Joe Paterno’s thing.

Three years playing the position at Brooklyn Prep, at times with brother George in the backfield.

Four more at Brown University, where sportswriter Stanley Woodward once wrote that Paterno was a quarterback  “who can’t run, can’t pass – he just thinks and wins.”

Sixteen years as Penn State’s quarterbacks coach and eventual associate head coach, guiding signal-callers named Liske, Lucas, Plum and Galen Hall.

And 46 seasons and a couple of hundred QBs -- from (John) Andress to Zack (Mills) -- as the Nittany Lions’ head coach.

You would think picking a full-time quarterback would be a quick-count snap for the 84-year-old Paterno.

It’s not. Not anymore.

Let’s get this straight: Paterno has no problem picking a starting quarterback. Sophomore Rob Bolden has started all four games in 2011 and the first seven of 2010 as a true freshman. It’s picking one guy to play the whole game this season that’s the problem. Or challenge. Or opportunity (if your name is Tony Robbins).

Only once has Paterno waited this long to name a permanent starter. And that, as we’ll see later, was a decision where he started C, then B, but surprisingly finally settled on H.


Four games into the 2011 season, the Nittany Lions are 3-1, and it doesn’t look like Paterno is going to officially, formally, finally, completely name a full-time quarterback.

He didn’t after junior Matt McGloin went 1 for 10 against a rushing Tide two weeks ago in a 27-11 loss to Alabama.

And he is unlikely to do so even after McGloin threw three touchdown passes – and almost a fourth, if not for a Michael Zordich fumble -- in Saturday’s 34-6 win over Eastern Michigan.

And, on 232nd thought, Paterno probably won’t name McGloin to start next Saturday at Indiana even after he reads these combined passing lines against now-mighty Temple and mousy Eastern Michigan:

McGloin -- 27 of 36 for 344 yards, 75 percent completion rate, 3 TD passes, 0 interceptions.

Bolden -- 16 of 30 for 207 yards, 53 percent completion rate, 1 TD pass, 2 interceptions.

Those numbers don’t show that Bolden led the Nittany Lions to the winning score on the their final drive of last week’s Temple game. Or that he almost fumbled away the game near the goal line on that drive.


In some ways, McGloin – who has nary an interception in 2011, so let’s stop that McPick stuff, shall we? -- has a clear edge. This is a stat I guarantee McGloin knows, too:

In 2011, McG led Penn State on seven touchdown drives; Bolden has had four. TDs are where it’s at. Overall scoring drives are a bit different, since field goals symbolize a failure of sorts by the offense and leave the final consequence in someone else’s hands -- er, foot.

Under Bolden’s leadership, the Lions have made two field goals and missed two field goals. With Matt at the helm, they’ve missed two FGs. (Matt Helm? I claim that as McGloin’s new, official nickname.)

McGloin has done more with less. He’s directed 19 drives in 2011, while Bolden’s been the guy for 24. That means McG’s drives end in a TD 37 percent of the time. RBold’s drives end in a touchdown 17 percent of the time.

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Let’s take the totality of the past 17 games. In 2010, the two QBs played the same number of quarters. In 2011, Bolden has played more than Matt Helm. But over that time, Matt has led PSU on 31 drives that led to six points; Bolden has done it just 15 times.

Doesn’t matter, says Paterno.

“I'm trying to get across one thing. This is a seat of the pants kind of situation I'm in right now,” Paterno said last Tuesday. “I've got to have a feel on the thing…Is that scientific? All right. No, it ain't scientific.”

So Paterno is up and down on the quarterbacks. What do you expect from a coach who watched part of the EMU game from the press box and part from the field? Used to be he was on the ground floor of these decisions.


On Saturday, he felt good about both quarterbacks.

“I think they both played well. I think they threw the ball well,” Paterno said after the game. “I thought they did some things well… They handled the team well, got a little better.”

This could go on for awhile. In fact, we’re all getting a little used to it. Bolden included.

“Once you do the same thing week after week,” Bolden said after the game, referring to the rotation of quarterbacks, “you get more comfortable with it.”

About eight feet away, talking to another media horde, McGloin -- I mean Matt Helm -- was asked if he thinks he earned the starting job with his three TD passes, (two to Derek) Moye or less.

“You guys know as much I do,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

So, not knowing, Paterno is not telling. Anyone.


“…I want to be fair,” Paterno said. “As I said (Sept. 14) at the press conference, I said one thing I want to do is I want to be fair to them. I want to be fair to the team. If I felt that the team was much more comfortable with one than the other, then -- I'm repeating myself from last week -- then that obviously would be a factor, but that's not the way it is…”

That was an uncharacteristic piece of introspective candor shared by Paterno. Typically, such revelations come months, even years later. Like the time Paterno said he should have subbed Daryll Clark for Anthony Morelli. (Didn't happen, forestalling a quarterback controversy.)

But then, as now, the coach just couldn’t pull the trigger. I think he’s getting mellower in his old age, maybe more humanistic, and also more indecisive.

Forget BFF, though. Joe, you’re looking for a BQBF.

Mostly, Paterno wasn’t always such a softy. Or was he? Depended on the quarterbacks involved.

Procrastinating on a starting QB has never been Joe’s cup of Old Grand Dad. He has rarely indulged in playing the waiting game.

“Maybe I'm making a mistake in not deciding,” Paterno said recently. “…I'm not real comfortable having two quarterbacks. I'm not comfortable with it. But I also wouldn't be comfortable if I did something that I felt ended up being unfair to one. So I have a dilemma.”

He’s faced it before, but it is an indecision in which he rarely indulged.


In 1970, senior Mike Cooper and junior Bob Parsons battled back and forth as Penn State floundered to a 2-3 start. It wasn’t pretty: Bob Parsons had three picks in one quarter against Syracuse, while Cooper was intercepted thrice at Wisconsin.

Decision: In game six, Paterno named sophomore John Hufnagel the starter.

In 1980, Jeff Hostetler led the Nittany Lions to a 2-1 start, but Joe had seen enough in a 21-7 loss at home against Nebraska. Even though Blackledge threw three picks, he did lead PSU on a 74-yard scoring drive, and boldly withstood a ferocious Nebraska rush that sacked Penn State quarterbacks nine times.

Decision: When Blackledge showed up for practice the Monday afternoon after the Nebraska game to prepare for a road contest at Missouri – the Nittany Lions’ fourth game of the season – a blue jersey was hanging in locker. The blue jersey went to the team's starter. Hostetler also had one that day. Not a lot of sentimentality there.

(But wait. Here’s the back story, which Blackledge told me in April 2010. Just two days before the season opener against Colgate in Beaver Stadium, Paterno made up his mind on the starter.

"Joe called me on that Thursday," Blackledge recalled. "He came over and picked me up in my dorm. We went for a drive in his car. We stopped to talk. Sitting on a bench, that's when he told me: Jeff was going to start, but I was going to play too.")

Take heed, Matt and Rob: If Joe’s office number comes up on your caller ID, don’t answer it.

In 1999, mobile and exciting Rashard Casey and strong-armed and traditional Kevin Thompson vied for the starting quarterback job. Thompson was the passer, Casey the change-of-pace runner. Overall, Thompson threw over a hundred more passes more than Casey (274 to 170), and more than doubled his TD passes (13 to 6) and passing yardage (1,916 to 856). But Casey was the team’s No. 2 rusher, with 290 yards, on a squad bereft of the usual Penn State ground game.

Decision: Thompson got every start that regular season, and only twice did Casey throw more passes than his counterpart in a single game.

So, even in his toughest decision-making years, Paterno picked his full-time starter after six games, four games and at the start of the season. This is Week Five.


This season, what were once vices is now a habit.

But c’mon, enough already. You’ve had enough of time. Two summers of workouts, one spring of official practices, two sets of summer drills, a year-and-a-third of daily fall practices, 17 games and a partridge in a pear tree.

Being a Brooklyn Dodger is not a crime or even an NCAA violation. But Paterno’s dilly-dallying does bring to mind a sports scandal of historic proportions.

For now, the status quo in Happy Valley is this:

Say you don’t know, Joe.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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