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Countdown to Blue-White / 9 Days: Penn State’s Top 5 Springtime Quarterback Battles

by on April 11, 2013 1:15 AM

Quarterbacks Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are getting all the headlines – and 168 snaps a piece in 7-on-7 drills – this spring. But their battle for the starting job is nothing new at Penn State.

Neither is the fact that one of the key combatants for the No. 1 slot isn’t even practicing. (We’re talking about you, Christian Hackenberg, soon to graduate prep school.)

And it may or may not be foreshadowing, but that other QB who didn’t take a springtime snap ended up winning the starting job and becoming being one of the greatest quarterbacks in Penn State football history.

(We’re talking about you, Kerry Collins, who missed spring drills in 1993 while still recovering from a broken index finger on your passing hand, suffered the prior summer.)

No matter. Three games into the 1993 season, Collins wrestled the starting job away from John Sacca and led Penn State to 18 wins over its next 20 games, including a perfect 12-0 in 1994. Spring practice in 1992 was much more of a battle, as Collins threw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns in the Blue-White Game, but still lost the 1992 starting job to Sacca.

Neither of those Collins-Sacca spring season battles made our list of Top 5 such contests, though. It can’t truly be a quarterback derby if one of the horses is not on the track -- a la Hackenberg.


With that in mind, let’s take a look at the five biggest springtime QB competitions at Penn State:

1. Todd Blackledge vs. Jeff Hostetler vs. Frank Rocco, 1980. It truly was a three-man race, and Blackledge entered spring at the bottom of the rung. By the end of the May 3 Blue-White Game, he had moved up quite a bit. He was 14 of 31 for 256 yards, with two interceptions and two TDs. Hostetler was 14 of 26 for 223, with a touchdown run, while Rocco was 10 of 24 for 101 yards, with one interception -- a pick by his brother Dan on the game’s first play. Hostetler got the starting nod for the first three games of 1980, then Blackledge stepped in and went 29-3 over a three-year span that culminated in Penn State’s first national championship.

It was the best QB battle in PSU history: Blackledge earned the ring and was a first-round NFL draft pick, while Hostler transferred to West Virginia, where he had a successful college career, married the head coach’s daughter and eventually won a Super Bowl quarterbacking the New York Giants. Winner: Tie.

2. John Shaffer vs. Matt Knizer, 1985 and 1986. The first spring neither won the job, as the two QBs were a study of contrasts: Steady Shaffer, who had two starts in the 1984 regular season and was 10 of 25 for 105 yards in the 1985 Blue-White Game, against wild-child Knizner, who threw three TDs and three interceptions in the spring game. Joe Paterno waited until the end of summer camp to name Shaffer the starter.

In the spring of 1986, after leading Penn State to an 11-0 regular season record in 1985, Shaffer had to win his job back. Understandable, in part because Penn State fell 25-10 to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl to lose the national championship as Shaffer threw three interceptions. In the summer of 1986, fans voted overwhelmingly for Knizner in a Harrisburg Patriot-News popularity poll, while a Penn State preseason magazine featured Knizner on the cover under large block type, “The People’s Choice.”

In the 1986 season, Shaffer held onto the job and played mistake-free football while the Penn State defense guided the Nittany Lions to a win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl for its second national title in five years. For his part, Shaffer capped a football career with just that one Sooner loss against 66 victories as a starter at every level, from pee-wee to PSU. Winner: Shaffer.

3. Matt McGloin vs. all comers – spring games only, that includes: Paul Jones (2010-11-12), Kevin Newsome (2010-2011) and Rob Bolden (2011-12). You know how this one ends. And ends. And ends. Get a load of these “career” Blue-White numbers: McGloin was 30 of 59 for 435 yards, with five TDs and three picks, while Bolden was 7 of 19 with four interceptions. This thing ran longer than “Gunsmoke” and “Friends” – combined. Winner: McGloin.

4. Daryll Clark vs. Pat Devlin, 2008. The two were battling to succeed Anthony Morelli, who led Penn State to back-to-back 9-4 records. Clark was Morelli’s backup, while Devlin was the all-time leading passer in Pennsylvania high school history, with 8,162 yards. He was also itching to play. In two seasons, he had thrown all of three passes at Penn State. Meanwhile, Clark had appeared in 15 games and was 20 of 36 passing in the regular season. In the 2008 Blue-White Game, both played well. Clark was 9 of 16 for 106 yards, with two TD passes. Devlin was 12 of 18 for 122 yards, with one touchdown pass.

Clark was awarded the starting job and led Penn State to an 11-2 record and a share of the Big Ten championship. Devlin, who came on in relief during a nationally-televised night game at Ohio State to save the victory, left the team prior to its Rose Bowl loss to Southern Cal. In 2009, Clark led Penn State to another 11-2 season, while Devlin transferred to Delaware. The next season he led the Blue Hens to the FCS national championship game, and he has been with the Miami Dolphins the past two seasons. Winner: Tie.

5. John Hufnagel vs. Mike Cooper vs. Bob Parsons, 1970. Chuck Burkhart quarterbacked Penn State to perfect 11-0 seasons in 1968-69. Cooper was the backup in 1969 and the heir apparent. But he and Hufnagel battled all spring long. Finally, Paterno named Cooper, an African-American, the starter. Threats were made against both Cooper and Paterno, who held steadfast through the first five games in 1970 (a 2-3 start). After dabbling with all three, Paterno finally settled on Hufnagel, who finished with a 26-3 record as a Penn State starter. Winner: Hufnagel.

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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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