We made the trip from Harrisburg to Happy Valley early Saturday morning in exactly one hour, 25 minutes. Seriously. No traffic jams 15 miles outside of State College, no freaky weather in the mountains. That, along with the 3-4 hours of early morning sunshine at our tailgate, was the highlight of the day. Football? Didn't even set foot inside the stadium, and didn't watch a single play of the game until Sunday afternoon. Also didn't feel even a minor pang of guilt after learning that the game was played in the usual Blue/White tradition of, "yeah, football is nice, but this is kind of boring. And who the hell is #96?"
You know who was in the stadium, though? Beat writers. Lowly, pathetically sober beat writers. Obviously, the quarterback competition was the headliner, and as predicted, nothing was resolved. Matt McGloin, supposedly the steady and accurate alternative to the more athletic and wild-throwing Kevin Newsome, did not make a favorable impression. McGloin finished 10-for-23 with no touchdowns and two interceptions. The interceptions were ugly -- a pair of passes into coverage that had absolutely no business being even contemplated, nevermind thrown.
For his part, Newsome was slightly better. His stat line (5 for 12, 50 yards) doesn't reflect it and his quirky throwing motion (it's "quirky" until it causes a backbreaking interception during a real game, at which point it obviously becomes JayPa's fault) is rough on the eyes, but he seems to have a good enough command of the short passing game to stake his claim as the nominal starter until further notice.
Of course, then there's Paul Jones, who threw the game's only two touchdowns on beautifully lobbed fade routes to Shawney Kersey. Jones had an even more limited playbook than Newsome and McGloin, but threw against defenses consisting of true freshmen and career backups. Still, he looked comfortable and polished, and that can only be a good thing moving forward.
How did the professional writers see things?
After the freshman appeared to upstage the two quarterbacks ahead of him, Jay Paterno checked his e-mail to find several predictable suggestions.
Paul Jones, they wrote, should be Penn State's starting quarterback.
''Doesn't take long for people to make their decisions,'' said Paterno, Penn State's quarterbacks coach.
But since none of those e-mails were signed by the head coach – ''It's an e-mail. That should tell you it didn't come from him,'' Jay Paterno joked – they don't represent the general temperament regarding the Lions' quarterback search. Which is closer to this: There's no hurry.
Jay Paterno said Newsome proved his desire last fall, when he called his position coach while watching film at 10:30 p.m. As for the throwing motion, Jay Paterno said it's an issue that will be addressed in due time.
''When he came in last year, he really had no basis and exposure to reading coverages,'' the quarterbacks coach said. "He's got that part down now, I think. Now, he's transitioning to dropping back, hitting his fifth step, knowing the blitz is coming from here, and I have to throw this slant on the backside. And now I have to smoothly throw the ball. He's gotten a lot better at that.''
McGloin said some teammates call him Brett, a reference to Vikings quarterback Brett Favre and his penchant for ''throwing into tight windows.'' McGloin tried that once too often Saturday, which resulted in a pair of picks. Still, he's confident in his ability.
''I feel more comfortable in the pocket,'' he said. ''I like to sit back, make my reads and deliver the ball. I think the line knows that, and I think we're going to continue going in that direction.''
Much, much more after the jump.
Saturday was about what most of the spring and what much of the summer will be about — the players under center. There’s no getting around it — whether the line is leaky or reliable, whether the receivers catch or drop everything, the offense and the Nittany Lions as a whole will need either Kevin Newsome or Matt McGloin or — dare we say it? — Paul Jones to provide some kind of stability at the quarterback position if 2010 is going to be anything more than a bowl-eligible season.
Early returns were not kind.
[T]he Nittany Lions threw more passes this spring than they had during any spring this decade, said their quarterbacks coach.
"We’ve really pushed them with the idea that we don’t have time to say you’re a sophomore, you’re a freshman," Jay Paterno said. "We’re going to challenge you, you’re gonna throw it, you’re gonna get hit, and then you’re gonna throw it again. We’ve tried to give them more reps, more of the pounding that they’re going to take in a game."
Joe Paterno, his son said Saturday, had initially wanted to take the opposite approach with the quarterbacks this spring — start slow, build their confidence up. But Jay convinced him to put the kid gloves in the closet, mostly because the big names on the schedule — Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State — really don’t care whether the eventual starter is a freshman, a senior or somebody’s grandmother.
Well, they have to learn at some point. In reality, Penn State is going to be a team straight out of its 1970's glory days -- lots of running (only with some read option added to the mix), ferocious defense, and a controlled passing game. Offensive success will require a lot of grit and brute force, and a pinch of trickery. No way around that, regardless of the quarterback.
And what to make of Paul Jones' success?
But that leads back to Mr. Jones. I believe Jones has much more potential to develop into a legitimate passing threat, possibly even a great passer. So, if at first you are relying on the defense and run game, that in turn would give Jones time to develop. He could be a three- or four-year starter and a real force by, say, 2011.
Yet, you say, Jones would be a true freshman. So what? Newsome threw just 11 passes last year. McGloin played even less. They're all gonna have happy feet out there in the beginning.
So, Jones could be the man. (At least until I see how the other top-flight QB recruit, Robert Bolden, fares.)
At this point, I want to make some sort of snide "if the Queen had balls, she'd be the King" comment, but even Bill Kline acknowledges that there's a 1-in-1,000,000 chance that Jones starts. However, I could see Jones nailing down the #2 spot sometime around early October.
"Last year Kevin and Matt played really loose like Paul did today," said quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno. "They were in a different situation this year."
Look it up. Last spring, McGloin threw two touchdowns and went 9-13 for 111 yards and no interceptions. Newsome also went 9-13, for 71 yards and a touchdown. So let's not freak out over Paul Jones' performance, visually pleasant as it may have been.
So, what does Paterno do with these unsightly remains? Before the game, he made it sound as though Jones was not going to be a factor.
But Tony Sacca wasn't supposed to be a factor in 1988. And Zack Mills wasn't supposed to be in 2001. Both were freshmen, though Mills was a redshirt.
Add in 1992, when Tony's brother John Sacca split time with a very green Kerry Collins, and you have the three closest facsimiles to this pending debacle.
In the modern game, you can't hide deficiency at the quarterback position. You can no longer live on a running game without a balance through the air. The days of “game-managers” like John Shaffer being camouflaged with defense and a prudent gameplan are over. Not if you're planning on winning any meaningful games. And the 1986 Shaffer would blow these guys off the roster.
It seems unreasonable that this offensive line will be good enough to shepherd a green quarterback(s) through a first half of the season that includes at Alabama and at Iowa without someone getting banged up. Or humiliated.
Which brings us to 2001 and what could be a circuitous route to a best case. Remember how pitiful Matt Senneca looked that year behind a bad O-line with no scheme to help him? But then freshman Mills was inserted at Northwestern, Fran Ganter was finally allowed to pry open the offense as Paterno threw up his hands. And it all turned the season around.
It's hard to remember now but a lot of fans had a lot of fun during that 5-6 season when the Nits didn't even make it to a bowl. Only a finishing loss at Virginia prevented it.
Ehh. I don't know. 1986 Shaffer was a statue with a better arm than McGloin, sure, but he didn't have nearly the athletic ability of Kevin Newsome. If there's anything that can mask a sub-par thrower, it's a sub-par thrower who can pick up third down conversions with his feet. That's why McGloin's the clear backup, and will remain so.
Enough about quarterbacks for now. Some random observations on the other 95% of the team:
Derek Levarse, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (who is quickly becoming one of my favorites on the beat):
The first team O-line had plenty of problems with the first-team D-line. Devon Still came right through for an early sack and Eric Latimore went right around Quinn Barham for a sack and what would probably have been a fumble for Newsome in a real game.
The linebackers were fine. A year ago at this time, receiver looked to be a major concern for the Lions, but Joe Paterno said he was comfortable with the position from the second the previous season had ended. So it goes this time around for the LBs. Stupar had a very nice interception, Gbadyu was noticable in a good way and second-teamer Jamie Van Fleet had another pick. And that's without Michael Mauti -- possibly State's most talented LB -- on the sideline. Mauti revealed after the game that he could conceivably end up at any of three LB spots in the fall. Some nice flexibility to have, and something that should ensure PSU has its best three men out there.
In my view, the offensive line and linebackers are in a similar situation. Coaches are trying to find their best group of players, regardless of a specific position (say, OLB vs. ILB, guard vs. tackle) and then plugging those players into positions that best match their particular skills. Gbadyu looks like he beefed up since last season. I'd expect some combination of Mauti, Stupar and Gbadyu in September.
As for the offensive line, who really knows at this point? Eric Latimore ran around new LT Quinn Barham repeatedly -- not a good sign unless you're Eric Latimore. It's usually difficult to get a read on the play of the offensive line, but with the constant subbing it's impossible during a Blue/White game. I won't get too worked up about the inability to block Devon Still because he clearly has the look of a guy ready to terrorize opposing guards and centers in 2010.
Paterno said three players are stuck in his infamous doghouse. Fullback Michael Zordich and kicker/punter Anthony Fera did not play Saturday due to alcohol-related issues. Both players are underage. A third player was scolded by Paterno for missing class, and a team spokesman later identified the player as tight end Mark Wedderburn.
Punting could be an issue this fall. Jeremy Boone graduated and backup Ryan Breen left the program in the offseason. With Fera unavailable for disciplinary reasons, walk-on Russell Nye and starting wideout Graham Zug punted Saturday. "Punting is a problem," Paterno said.
Fera, of course, could be the answer to the punting woes if he can fly straight and lay off the mango rum.
Lots of drops by wide receivers in Saturday's game. I'm not concerned, that group is the strength of the offense.
Penn State handed out its annual spring awards at halftime. Linebacker Bani Gbadyu was the recipient of the Jim O'Hora Award, which is presented to the defensive player for exemplary conduct, attitude and improvement. Brackett and tackle Quinn Barham shared the Red Worrell Award, which is given to the offensive player who displays exemplary conduct and makes the most improvement during spring practice. Linebacker Chris Colasanti and tight end Andrew Szczerba were co-recipients of the Frank Patrick Total Commitment Award.
Penn State will become the first team ever to play three defending BCS winners on the road in the same season.