Matt McGloin was no lock to start at quarterback.
There was a new head coach with a new pro-style offense. Skill players had transferred after severe NCAA sanctions in response to the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and there was worry about more to leave. O'Brien cautioned followers of the program not to expect 35 points a game, and there was McGloin, merely serviceable under the old, mostly-sputtering offense of Joe Paterno.
O'Brien's move from working with Tom Brady in New England to mentoring this former walk-on from Scranton appeared destined for turbulence. And McGloin had his own turbulence at the end of last season, in which he sustained a concussion from a one-sided fight with a teammate. Campus police had to look into the scuffle, and McGloin missed the team's bowl game with lingering physical effects.
"I got what was coming to me," McGloin tweeted after the altercation.
When the No. 16 Louisville Cardinals (7-0) host the Cincinnati Bearcats (5-1) Saturday, a Keg of Nails is at stake in a rivalry between two teams that have journeyed from football oblivion to perennial success.
For decades, Louisville football was, at best, mediocre. Sure, there were flashes of greatness, such as the 1990 team that went 10-1-1. But there were also a whole bunch of really bad teams, like the '91 team that went 2-9.
For decades, Cincinnati football followed a very similar path: flashes of greatness, lots of really bad teams and plenty of mediocrity.
Throughout the years, the Keg of Nails has been passed back and forth between the Cardinals and Bearcats in a rivalry that dates back to 1929. The Keg of Nails is a traveling trophy that was created by fraternities at both schools, replicating a keg that was used to ship nails and symbolizing that the winning team is "tough as nails."
Separated by less than two hours of travel on I-71, these Big East rivals have both recently found consistent success on the gridiron that had eluded them for decades. Winning seasons, national rankings and bowl games are now common for both programs, upping the intensity of the Keg of Nails rivalry.
Cincinnati is stinging from a 29-23 upset at the hands of Toledo that dropped it from a No. 21 ranking, but the 'Cats still boast a 5-1 record and one of the most prolific offenses and stingiest defenses in the FBS. Plus, they hold a 30-20-1 advantage in the Keg of Nails series, including four straight wins.
Only one team can bring the Keg of Nails home. Who will it be?
– Eric Ivie
McGloin insists he ignored the doomsayers – "I don't really care what was written," he said Wednesday – but he must have heard them. They were everywhere, including right outside the gates of that first practice less than three months ago, as a few reporters discussed McGloin's horrendous Outback Bowl game performance in 2011, in which he threw five interceptions in an ugly loss to Florida. Why would this season be any better?
"Penn State had the 110th scoring offense in the nation last season," one website's Penn State preview announced, "and, personnel wise, it has gotten worse at all levels. … The most experienced player is quarterback Matt McGloin, but he hasn't come close to proving himself worthy of leading a competitive team."
McGloin, the first walk-on to start at Penn State since 1949, appeared likely to play a few games and then walk right back off and onto a list of forgettable Nittany Lions quarterbacks.
But a funny thing happened on McGloin's road to oblivion.
Seven games into the season, he's not only still the starter, he's the starter of a 5-2 team that's 3-0 in the Big Ten. McGloin has gone from 10th in pass completions in 2010 and ninth last season to first now and leads the league in passing at 255 yards per game. He went from eight touchdowns last season to 14 so far this season. And that's just through the air. McGloin has one fewer rushing scores (five) than Michigan's Denard Robinson. In short, McGloin has transformed himself into a dual-threat quarterback after being a no-threat quarterback.
The preseason doubt was followed by regular season doubt. McGloin looked sharp in the first half of his first game against Ohio, but the offense collapsed in the second half and it looked like the lack of depth after NCAA sanctions would hamper the team all season. Yet McGloin helped turned Penn State into a 60-minute team: His passing rating of 111.0 against Ohio would be the lowest in his first seven games, and he has only thrown one more interception to date. The Nittany Lions have outscored opponents 112-49 in the Big Ten.
Those who know him aren't surprised. McGloin is from Scranton, where obstacles are considered challenges, never deal-breakers. "It's a hard-nosed, blue-collar area," he said. "The support there is better than anywhere else, I believe."
Of course "hard-nosed" has more than one connotation with McGloin, and O'Brien found that out quickly. The two have battled more than once in practice. "We're Irish men," McGloin said Wednesday. "We have a bit of angriness about us. We could both fly off the handle at any second."
That drew laughter from reporters (and McGloin himself), which is almost a relief after he actually did lose his temper last season in the moments leading up to his fight with Curtis Drake. Now his feistiness is a bonus, combining with his coach's intensity to raise a team's level of play and also drown the kind of negative noise Penn State has been dealing with all year. And that's meant literally: McGloin says O'Brien is so loud that even in hostile stadiums he can hear play calls from everywhere on the field, and McGloin explains his own yelling as designed to "get them motivated, fired up, make them understand what's coming up here. We want to make everyone around us great."
It's working. Running back Bill Belton speaks of his quarterback as if he's a coordinator, praising his ability to "take us under his wing" and "get everyone where they need to be."
That includes McGloin himself. One of the biggest improvements about McGloin's game is his pocket awareness. O'Brien has taught his starter to "redirect your eyes with your feet," which is something Brady excels at in New England. As a result, McGloin looks less and less rattled even as O'Brien ramps up the information in his head. The so-called "NASCAR" offense (which doesn't take a genius to interpret as fast-moving) has only become more efficient over the season.
Perhaps most importantly, McGloin and his teammates say they're having more fun than ever. Fans agree. The campus camp-scene known as Nittanyville, which changed its name from Paternoville, had a population of more than a thousand this week for the first time ever in advance of a visit from division rival Ohio State. A season that was supposed to be more memorable for off-field reasons has become special inside Beaver Stadium as well. Penn State is not eligible for postseason play, so this weekend's game will have a January feel. O'Brien has asked fans to show up, wear some white and be loud.
His starting quarterback, so recently a symbol of uncertainty, is a lock to do all three.
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