Penn State Football: Bolden's Drive to Come of Age
He was wearing dark blue silk sweatpants, a grey Penn State football T-shirt and a baseball hat. A blue backpack was slung over both his shoulders, as if he were off to Bi Sci 04. He appeared smaller than 6-foot-3 and much slighter than 221 pounds.
For those reasons and more no one noticed him early Saturday night. Just some kid, one of thousands, going back to the dorms after the game.
He was surrounded by a group of five young women and a toddler, who rode atop his shoulders. His look was placid, his demeanor calm.
Hey, c’mon, kid. Crack a smile. Penn State won.
Just 75 minutes ago in front of 104,840 fans inside Beaver Stadium, Penn State drove 96 yards in 12 plays in the fourth quarter, with its freshman quarterback completing money passes of 19 and 27 yards on a pair of crucial third downs.
He also added a 13-play, 60-yard drive and an 11-play, 74-yard drive for good measure. So many of his drives led to Penn State field goals by Collin Wagner (five, from 45, 32, 42, 32 and 21 yards), you half expected Bill Murray from “Goundhog Day” to be roaming the sidelines.
(“Well, what if there is no tomorrow?” you figured Temple coach Al Golden would ask after the game, quoting the same movie. “There wasn't one today.”)
Add in a career day for a heretofore hibernating senior running back Evan Royster, who got a few sage pre-game words from Joe Paterno and ran for a career-high 187 yards on 26 carries, and it’s reason for jubilation, right? Right?
That quarterback, after all, led the Nittany Lions to their third win in four games, a 22-13 come-from-behind victory over Temple, a surprising 3-0 entering the game. He completed 18 of 28 passes (64.2 percent) for 223 yards, his third game over 200 yards and his first without an interception.
DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY
Reason to be happy for the Nittany Lions, right? Right?
The kid’s group was lively, but the lone male ambled along, in the back. Quiet, but as it turns out, content.
“C’mon, Rob,” said the girl in front, wearing a white football jersey with a No. 1.
They were easily following the flow of fans and cars heading south from the Jordan Center along University Drive. They were among the scattered groups slowly walking down the hill, heading into downtown State College and campus points west.
The group came upon a middle-aged man, who did a double-take, then caught the young man in mid-stride.
“Excuse me, but aren’t you Rob Bolden?”
If the young man was indeed that freshman quarterback in question, no one else knew about it but his small and well-mannered entourage.
The young man braced and stared at the stranger, the whites of his eyes full as if the inquisitor was about going to execute a strong safety blitz.
“Yes,” was his flat reply, surprised and maybe a little alarmed that any of the scores of passersby would recognize him.
“Well.” Pause. “Good game.”
Bolden emoted as much as he did when, during the game, he was slammed by Temple linebacker Tahir Whitehead, fumbling the ball for a 19-yard loss. Or when he drilled one of his four first-down passes to Justin Brown.
Which is to say, he pulled a Clint Eastwood. Cool, quiet, steely-eyed.
WALK THIS WAY
Then he kept walking, quiet, in anonymity. He may be just 133 days past his high school graduation, and only into his fourth week of his college career, but Bolden is no longer a child, as the 83-year-old Paterno playfully told him before the game on Saturday.
“I said as we were warming up, ‘Just forget that you are only 12 years old. Go out and have some fun. Everyone is trying to treat you like a baby.’ "
No longer. Bolden’s stats, his stature, his status are all confirmation that he is otherwise.
Bolden is not yet allowed to meet the post-game media – unlike 2005 freshmen Williams and King, neither of them quarterbacks, mind you.
But with Alabama behind him, the Big Ten in front of him, and a passing line of 68 of 113 (60.2 percent) for 823 yards, with three TDs and five picks, Bolden has successfully met the press. As in Press Cover 2.
The seminal moment came midway through the fourth quarter against Temple on Saturday, when it seemed like Penn State, though ahead 15-13 after a 13-9 Temple halftime lead, was trailing by a score or so. There were nine minutes left in the game and Bolden was facing a third and 6 from his 8-yard line. Yikes.
“I basically said, 'The heck with it. Let's find out what we got,' ” said quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, recalling his strategy while in the press box. “…We said put the heat on them.”
Bolden threw a 19-yard pass to Graham Zug, the receiver’s only catch of the day. First down.
Four plays later, Bolden faced a third and 8, from his own 41. He threw a beauty, for 27 yards to Brown. First down.
“Rob did a good job of maintaining his composure and getting the job done,” said Brown.
“The second third-down throw he made to Brown, he got absolutely tattooed as he was letting go of it,” Jay Paterno said. “We should have picked the blitz up on that one. He had a guy bearing down his neck and then makes a big-time throw like that.
“We don't want to get overly excited, but that is key to see him be able to do things like that. I told him after the game that is what a quarterback does, that is when you know you have it.”
Five plays later, all of them runs – including a 17-yarder by Royster -- Mike Zordich ran in from the 1 for a touchdown and a definitive nine-point lead with 210 seconds left in the game.
COMING OF AGE
As the fourth-quarter drive on the road against Illinois after a night of no electricity and cold pizza defined the undefeated Nittany Lions of 1994, so too may the Temple drive define Rob Bolden.
He threw only four times on that drive, but completed three of them -- one to Zug, two to Brown. All for first downs.
There was no one clear voice in the huddle on that drive, said Brown. “A couple of players were saying, ‘Let’s get it together, let’s go.’ Last year, Daryll (Clark) would have taken over.”
Yet Bolden was heard, loud and clear.
“I think that [96-yard drive] will be a clutch drive for him and his development,” said the younger Paterno.
However difficult it is to face the Crimson Tide on their home turf or be the first true freshman to start for a coaching legend, the coming of age that Bolden has faced is relatively painless.
In Australia, adolescent Aborigine boys are sent to live in the wilderness for as long as six months. And to become men in Amazon's Satere Mawé tribe, boys as young as 12 have to first wear ceremonial gloves filled with stinging bullet ants.
For now, as the Big Ten season is set to begin, the tests facing Bolden are a bit more civilized.
The walkabout to Iowa City next week is 777 miles – one way, but by air – while in Columbus the Buckeyes have bitten Penn State seven of the eight times Penn State has visited the Horseshoe since joining the Big Ten, outscoring the Nittany Lions 203-64.
So, ready or not, here he comes.
With The Drive now under his belt, Bolden now has the keys to the car.
- Penn State Football: Royster, Wagner Have Big Days in Small Victory (Sept. 25, 2010)