The last time Penn State had such indecision about who would play the quarterback position as the season got underway was 2004. That didn't work out so well.
That year it was Zack Mills and Michael Robinson vying for the position. Like this season, both entered the year with substantial game experience. Like this season, none of that experience was particularly enjoyable.
This year's candidates entering Saturday's noon start with FCS member Indiana State (Big Ten Network), are sophomore Rob Bolden and junior Matt McGloin. Both will play against ISU and it's a perfect day for auditions. This promises to be little more than a controlled scrimmage against a I-AA school that came very close to dropping football a couple of years ago as a 33-game losing streak progressed.
The next game will bear no similarity. It's against No. 2-ranked Alabama.
So, it behooves Joe Paterno, entering his 46th season as head coach and 62nd as PSU quarterback guru think about that a moment to make a decisive call on which guy will lead the team from Monday forward.
On Friday, it was reported that Bolden will get the start but that's not indicative of anything. Both will play. Both will get ample opportunity to make an impression.
All things being equal in performance on Saturday, it would seem Bolden has the inside track for a different reason. He already has shown he's willing to transfer if he doesn't get the permanent starting job; he announced his intention to do so after not playing in PSU's Outback Bowl loss to Florida while McGloin threw five picks, then changed his mind when Paterno initially refused to release him from his Letter of Intent.
However distasteful Bolden's abortive departure might be to some PSU fans, Paterno needs an experienced back-up. And behind these two there is nothing of substance. McGloin is accustomed to having to fight and claw for playing time being a onetime walk-on. He's more likely to tolerate filling the role.
The Cliff Notes on each:
Bolden Bigger by several inches, more able to see over linemen, more lively arm, more austere decision-maker, not exactly a pied-piper leader type, not terribly mobile.
McGloin More charismatic, better adaptive to off-the-bench sparkplug role, more vocal, short (6-0) more prone to throw ill-advised balls into traffic, less capable of beating challenging man-coverage secondaries, not all that mobile either.
They are very even at the moment. What we easily could be in for is something Paterno has resorted to at various times during a career so long that there's no situation he hasn't seen: The dreaded quarterback tandem.
Last time was, again, that 2004 season. It began 2-7 and 0-6 in the Big Ten with the least effective offense the Big Ten had seen in seven years. Both QBs were knocked out of a hellish 16-3 beating at Wisconsin. There was a 6-4 loss at home to Iowa in which Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz was so confident of PSU's offensive ineptitude that he took an intentional safety to make it a 2-point game with 3:00 still remaining.
The prior best example of a QB tandem was 1999. That time Kevin Thompson and Rashard Casey each saw action in almost every game. It was a very successful 9-0 season including a win at Miami and another over Drew Brees at Purdue, until November when the roof caved in after a stunning upset home loss to Minnesota.
This figures to fall somewhere in-between. Penn State should have a much better, more experienced offensive line than in the bad ol' days of '04. Like '99, they also get a break in that five very winnable games lead off the Big Ten schedule under the new divisional format.
Then, also like '99, November arrives. After a well-placed bye: Nebraska, at Ohio State, at Wisconsin. Ow.
Quarterback and the O-line mean everything to this season. If they stay healthy and perform and they have the potential to it could be a 9-3, 6-2 season and PSU could even challenge for a title in the new Leaders Division with favored Wisconsin, beleaguered Ohio State and dark-horse Illinois. If they don't, a losing season is fathomable.
Winner of the division gets a trip to scenic Indianapolis and a date in the new conference title game at Lucas Oil Stadium with a BCS bowl bid on the line.
It's an upperclass-dominated O-line with a junior, two seniors and three grad students. None has been a dominant player; all but one has substantial experience over at least two seasons. The keys: Junior center Matt Stankiewitch who started a couple of games at left guard in '09 and saw his season largely wiped away last year after mononucleosis struck in early October, and left tackle Quinn Barham who started every game there last year.
If both perform well, all units will benefit. It means more time for the quarterbacks to find a very good squadron of receivers led by big senior Derek Moye. It means more room for smallish but quick sophomore feature back Silas Redd. And it means fewer plays on the field for a defense that promises workmanlike results but no stick-out playmakers.
The defense has supported the renaissance of this program as an annual winner since that 2004 season. It began with a first-and-goal stand from PSU's 1 at Indiana in the penultimate '04 game. It culminated with a dominant defense in 2005 featuring not just stars like Tamba Hali and Paul Posluszny but unheralded yet dynamic D-linemen like Matt Rice, Scott Paxson and Jay Alford.
Penn State D-line coach Larry Johnson has been the backbone of the staff in consistently coming up with such difference-makers. No one similar emerged last year, injuries compounded matters and the defense felt the pinch. It posted milestone team-worsts in several categories: 23.7 average points allowed (most since 25.5 in 2001); 166 average rushing yards allowed (most since 209 in 2003); .610 completion percentage allowed (most since .634 in 2002); 17 sacks (fewest since 14 in 2003).
Best guess for such an emergence would be at the tackles where senior Devon Still and junior Jordan Hill have shown flashes.
If the guys up front perform better, what looks like a very good group of linebackers led by strong-side man Mike Mauti will keep clean and be able to fly to plays. New man in the mix is true-soph middle man Glenn Carson. Big hitter is weak-side junior backer Gerald Hodges.
A final personnel factor is the acclimation of a new placekicker, a surprise choice in junior Evan Lewis. A former standout high school quarterback at Gettysburg (2007 AP Class AAA state player of year in Pennsylvania), Lewis is not known for a cannon leg. If he simply keeps his nerve and hits the kicks from 40 yards in, that would be a major bonus.
Outside of the obvious week 2 visit from Bama, the schedule presents a more hidden challenge in a week 3 trip to Lincoln Financial Field to face a good-looking Temple team under the new leadership of former Florida coordinator Steve Addazio. Not only Addazio but his coordinators Scot Loeffler and Chuck Heater, a pair of Michigan Men, got a good, long look at Penn State in film work leading up to the Capital One Bowl, then in the game itself. That is not to be discounted.
Neither is the juncture of the game for Penn State in Philadelphia and immediately after what will be a very rigorous evening against a national title contender. Bumps and bruises physical and maybe emotional may play into the equation. It's not common for Temple to be a linchpin game for Penn State but this one very well could be, especially if the Owls can win for the first time in 70 years.
Finally, there's the 84-year-old Paterno, entering the final year of his latest contract. The PSU program surely is at a point now where it cannot move forward until the head coaching question is resolved. But Paterno, his latest bone-breaking tumble be damned, shows no sign of descent from the throne and Old Main shows no sign of forcing one.
Lots of malleable factors here and a tough pick in a season with major flux possible. Best guess is 7-5 overall and 4-4 in a relatively tough Big Ten.