UNIVERSITY PARK — The annual Blue-White Game looked a little different this year.
First-year coach Bill O’Brien changed things up for his first spring scrimmage. Instead of dividing the team into two squads, it was simply offense versus defense. The scoring system was revamped, which made the 77-65 final look more like an Arena Football League contest instead of a spring football game. It didn’t necessarily make the game any better or interesting, but it certainly was different.
At Saturday’s scrimmage, O’Brien was an active participant. He was on the field, calling plays and interacting with players. That was certainly different for the squad, which was used to the late Joe Paterno being up in the radio booth, handling color commentary duties on the Penn State Sports Network.
The estimated 60,000 in the seats at Beaver Stadium came to see O’Brien’s coaching debut. They came to see how he had changed the Penn State offense. And although O’Brien said that he unveiled just “10 percent” of his offensive packages, it definitely looked different. Many speculated that O’Brien’s offense would feature a lot of short passes to the tight end, and we saw several examples of that on Saturday.
But the key figure in O’Brien’s offense isn’t the tight end, the wideouts or the running back.
Make no mistake about it, the key figure is the quarterback.
O’Brien said heading into the game that the battle for the starting quarterback job was a three-horse race between Matt McGloin, Rob Bolden and Paul Jones. All three got ample playing time in the scrimmage. Moving forward, O’Brien should focus on McGloin and Jones.
First the bad news: Rob Bolden looked as lost during the Blue-White Game as he did during the TicketCity Bowl against Houston in January. Bolden came to Penn State as a highly-touted recruit. He was the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Nittany Lions, but he has progressed little — if at all — during his first two seasons at University Park. If Saturday’s scrimmage is any indication, Bolden still lacks an internal clock when he’s in the pocket.
Bolden also took several chances. Some of those chances resulted in incompletions. Three times, though, those chances resulted in interceptions. As we witnessed during his time in New England, O’Brien’s offense only works when the quarterback doesn’t turn the ball over (see Super Bowl XLVI).
That takes Bolden out of the mix.
That leaves O’Brien to choose between McGloin and Jones. Both have their upsides.
First, there’s McGloin. Although he threw one pick on Saturday, he looked solid. He completed the passes that he needed to complete and he looked comfortable running the new offense. Although many fans may hold a grudge against McGloin because he began as a walk-on, he probably gives the Nittany Lions the best chance to win in 2012.
For what it’s worth, he likes the relationship he has with the new coaching staff.
“I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s different,” McGloin said. “There’s more communication. We’re having more fun out there. The most important thing, though, is that we’re being told the truth. The coaches are being honest with you. They tell you what you’re doing wrong. They tell you where you’re at every day. And that didn’t happen in the past.”
McGloin has endured his ups and downs during his time at Penn State. He’s certainly no Tom Brady and he’s likely playing his last season of organized football. He wasn’t a four-star and he’s not going to be drafted next April. But he does have swagger, and he realizes that the quarterback is a crucial part of the equation.
“It’s the quarterback who is going to run the show,” McGloin said. “(O’Brien) has said that many, many times.”
That being said, you can bet your bottom dollar that O’Brien won’t be flip-flopping quarterbacks in and out of the lineup like we saw last season or the season before that.
If it’s not McGloin, O’Brien’s only other option is Jones. Like McGloin, he made more good throws than bad ones. He showed off his arm, uncorking a 60-yard bomb that fell incomplete. He missed last season due to academic issues, but he seems to have those issues resolved.
He appears to have a good relationship with O’Brien, as evidenced during a butt-slap that the Sto-Rox product delivered to his new coach.
O’Brien likes what he sees from Jones.
“Paul Jones has gotten better every single day. Paul and I have a unique relationship because we both have unique senses of humor,” O’Brien said. “He’s been a fun guy to coach, and I’ll keep between he and I what he needs to do to win the starting job, but he made a lot of strides this spring. He’s doing better in school, and I’ve really enjoyed being around Paul.”
Let the competition begin.
Chris Morelli is an award-winning writer/editor who resides in Centre County and covers Penn State athletics for gantdaily.com. He’s also a regular on “Sports Central,” which airs on ESPN Radio in Altoona and State College. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.