Where Penn State is concerned, the quarterback reflects the team. Or is it the other way around?
Matt McGloin, making his fourth straight start at QB in Saturday's regular-season finale against Michigan State (and his sixth straight appearance), started out OK, then struggled so much that the coaches considered inserting Rob Bolden late in the third quarter.
McGloin's strong finish kept Bolden on the bench, and kinda-sorta got the Nittany Lions back into the game. They scored their final touchdown with 56 seconds left to cut the deficit to 28-22, but failed on an unplanned two-point conversion attempt, when holder Brett Brackett bobbled the snap on a placement and overthrew fullback Joe Suhey in the end zone. Then they failed to recover the ensuing onside kick.
McGloin threw for 312 yards, which coupled with his 315-yard effort against Indiana made him the first quarterback in Penn State history to surpass 300 in consecutive weeks. He also had 23 completions (in 43 attempts), giving the redshirt sophomore a new high for his still-burgeoning career; he had hit one fewer pass against the Hoosiers. Two of Saturday's throws went for touchdowns. He was intercepted once.
Quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno correctly called it an up-and-down day for McGloin. It was, in fact, the inverse of the Ohio State game, when he started strong before fading horribly. But the inescapable conclusion is that better days lie ahead for him and this team, which is still young, still developing.
(And this assumes that it remains his team; Paterno the Younger mentioned that there will still be competition between McGloin and Bolden in the practices leading up to whatever bowl game awaits PSU, that that has been healthy for both guys to date. And McGloin is not averse to it. After all, he said, I've been battling since I got here.)
But the larger point, McGloin said, is this: We've got to learn to play a full game. Today we came out flat and ended good. Against Ohio State we came out good and ended flat. We're so close to being a good team. It's real frustrating right now.
They need to clean up some things on defense; Michigan State basically did whatever it wanted, as had been the case for long stretches in Penn State's other four losses. The Lions were also penalized eight times for 65 yards, both season highs; they began the day with the third-fewest flags (40) and the fewest penalty yards (306) in the nation.
McGloin, like his team, appears to be growing ever more competent. When he first appeared as a sub for the concussed Bolden on Oct. 23 at Minnesota, he was still something of a gunslinger-type quarterback, said wide receiver Derek Moye, one of three Penn State receivers with five or more catches Saturday. (Justin Brown and Graham Zug were the others.)
Now, Moye said, McGloin is refining his craft.
It's a learning experience, McGloin agreed. Obviously I've been learning each and every week for the past couple weeks. I've been learning more and more -- learning how to slow the game down, making reads, taking what the defense gives you.
The process is ongoing. He went 5-for-8 in Saturday's first quarter, but took a delay-of-game penalty after the Lions had driven to the MSU 10 on their first possession of the game.
A combination of things led to that, the quarterback said. The play was slow coming in, but he also thought there was more time on the play clock than there actually was. And while he did not believe that set the tone for the flag fest, two false-start penalties on left tackle Quinn Barham short-circuited the next drive. (Barham was also called for holding in the third quarter.)
A roughing-the-passer penalty on defensive tackle Devon Still had contributed to the Spartans' game-opening touchdown march, and a late hit on safety Malcolm Willis aided the visitors as they marched to their final score, in the fourth quarter.
I don't know if (the flags) cost us the game, but they certainly had an impact on it, Joe Paterno said.
He then emphasized that he did not want to detract from Michigan State's victory by mentioning the infractions. At the same time, he said that he might want to look at one or two of them that were called on us, especially early, as to whether they were I want to look at them. Let me leave it at that.
And still later he said that the Spartans got some help from some penalties we had.
Jay Paterno did not completely agree, saying there were a lot of other factors in the game besides the flags that swung things toward the visitors. He said McGloin missed some throws, especially in the second and third quarters, and that the coaches could have done a better job managing the game, notably on an ill-fated third-and-1 reverse on PSU's first possession of the second half, when Devon Smith was thrown for a nine-yard loss.
May have been a little too cute on that call, Jay said.
McGloin was by that point amid a 5-for-15 stretch. Jay Paterno thought his quarterback might have been affected by the wind, but McGloin said the problem was just execution -- that there were throws to be made, and he wasn't making them.
Whatever the case, the staff began wondering in the third quarter if it was time to turn to Bolden.
It's one of those things we talked about, the younger Paterno said, and we thought, 'Let's see what happens.' It worked out that Matt kind of got a hot hand there.
Starting late in that period, McGloin led the Lions on a six-play, 74-yard drive, covering the final 25 on a TD pass to Suhey to make it 21-10 with 13:58 left in the game. Michigan State answered with a touchdown drive of its own, but then PSU's Evan Royster capped a 10-play, 72-yard march by running 10 yards for a score with 5:51 remaining. And the decision was made to go for two.
Seemed a little early for that. But as Jay Paterno said, You had to do it at some point.
The Lions lined up, and in the estimation of the younger Paterno had the right play called for the defense the Spartans were in. But play was then halted while Royster's run was subjected to a replay review, to see if he crossed the goal line before his knee hit the ground.
The delay gave MSU a chance to adjust, Jay said, and McGloin then threw incomplete in the direction of Zug.
We had the defense we wanted, Jay said. The review gave them a chance to coach it up, so we did change the play on it. But we had exactly what we wanted. That was one of those things -- that play didn't need to be reviewed. It was pretty clear. But it was opportune (for MSU) to kind of see what we were going to do.
Added McGloin, I can't really say the refs win or lose the game for either team, but in that type of situation you've got to make a decision whether you're going to review the call or not. You can't let a team come up and get set, and then go and review it -- especially in a situation like that. I disagree with that completely.
Michigan State would later fumble, enabling McGloin to throw another TD pass, to Moye, with 56 seconds to play. (That followed an interception eight yards deep in the end zone by Michigan State's Trenton Robinson, the foolish decision to run the ball out and Moye's strip of Robinson at the 4.)
That made it 28-22. It was as close as Penn State would get, on yet another up-and-down day -- for the team, and the quarterback.
Afterward, a reporter asked Joe Paterno for his assessment of McGloin's play. The question was repeated a second time, then a third. Then another reporter attempted to explain to the coach what he had been asked. Paterno finally said he understood the question, and added that someone had told him before his postgame news conference that he would surely be asked about Bolden.
I said, 'Well, if they ask me a dumb question like that, they'll get a dumb answer,' Paterno said.
At that point there was uneasy laughter in the interview room.
Did I not say that? Right? Paterno asked, turning toward the school's director of branding and marketing, Guido D'Elia, who was standing off to the side of the desk where Paterno was seated.
D'Elia only shrugged.
So you got a dumb answer to a dumb question, Paterno concluded.
Anything else for Coach? sports information director Jeff Nelson asked.
There were a few more things, just as there appears to be a lot more for this team, and this QB.
That's a beatable team right there, McGloin said of Michigan State. We knew we were going to be able to move the ball, and this whole week we were extremely confident. We knew we were going to execute. We didn't at times. That's the reason we lost the football game.
It only added to his frustration.
Hopefully in the next month, he said, we'll learn to play a complete football game.