Matt McGloin had plenty of options. He chose the toughest path.
Never one to shy away from an interview, McGloin is reflective on this night — Thanksgiving Eve, three days until he’ll run out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel one final time.
Maybe in a different lifetime, had McGloin not possessed the moxie necessary to challenge himself at such a young age, he would’ve wound up somewhere else where the odds to continue on to college football stardom would’ve certainly been more heavily in his favor.
Maybe he’d have simply taken the full scholarship to Villanova or any of the other Division I-AA schools where football coaches once coveted the West Scranton star.
In those places, McGloin coul have been the man right away, or at the very least, tabbed to start and make an impact on the field sooner rather than later.
He chose to walk on at Penn State.
Where Daryll Clark had a firm hold on the starting quarterback spot. Where Pat Devlin, at the time, seemed primed to take over. Where highly touted quarterback recruits would eventually — and frustratingly — slide into the depth chart ahead of him in what could’ve been the prime of his career.
Where a walk-on had never before started at the quarterback position.
Where McGloin has, after two partial seasons before this, his final season, thrown more touchdown passes than Clark and any other man who has ever played quarterback for the Nittany Lions.
He can pad that touchdown lead today. But playing for statistics has never appealed to the outspoken, thick, red-haired man who will lead Penn State against Wisconsin. He measures success in wins and losses — typical of a player who’s spent the majority of his career playing for, simply, another chance to play.
“He’s been through a lot and I’m sure he’d tell you it’s been a journey for him here,” first-year quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher said. “It’s exciting to see the way he’s played and I talk to him all the time about keeping his focus. ... He’s just got to keep it locked in for Wisconsin.”
A first taste
In truth, most of the fans on hand at TCF Bank Stadium in 2010 probably had no clue who No. 11 was. They had come to watch their boys pummel him and any other player wearing blue and white, like the Gophers had just done to then-true freshman Rob Bolden, who was knocked out of the game with a concussion.
Suddenly, midway through the second quarter, McGloin got his first real shot to lead the Penn State offense.
McGloin’s first pass attempt fell incomplete, intended for Derek Moye, on third down. His second went to Moye for a 42-yard touchdown. McGloin added a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to keep the game out of the Gophers’ reach.
“I just wanted to get in there and get going and play my game,” McGloin said of his first meaningful in-game action. “Most quarterbacks you get one opportunity to make it happen and your window of opportunity isn’t open that long so you’ve got to make the most of it when you get in there and play.”
It would become a theme for McGloin.
Although he’d start the remaining five regular season games, disaster struck in the team’s bowl game against Florida. McGloin, who isn’t one to rely on clichés, put it bluntly.
He played terribly, completing just 17 of 41 passes with five interceptions. Penn State lost 37-24. McGloin would have to wait nearly a year before he got his next chance to start.
“It was definitely a bitter moment and tough moment in my career. It was just one of those days when nothing went your way,” McGloin said. “At that point it’s tough because there is no next game. You have to let that moment linger for the next 10 months.”
Anthony Morelli got them during his tenure in Happy Valley. McGloin got them, too. McGloin’s heard and read much criticism and vitriol, knows all the derogatory nicknames the haters have tried to pin on him — McGroan. McGroin.
Stuff like that spreads like wildfire nowadays, as communication channels between spectators and players are constantly open and available for people who want to sound off.
“You get everything. All kinds of emails. Things on your Facebook, Twitter. You laugh at it and feel sorry for them,” McGloin said. “That’s what you have to understand. There’s always going to be critics. There’s always going to be people that hate on you and they’re going to be the ones that are going to try and push you down when things are bad. They’re no where to be found when things are good.”
McGloin is able to brush those things off. For him, the low point of his career was last season. He couldn’t get into a rhythm until late as the previous coaching staff constantly switched him and Bolden in and out of the lineup.
Bolden started the first seven games and was largely ineffective. McGloin struggled for portions when he got into games, too.
All-in-all, as the previous coaching staff continued to evaluate the two players, McGloin and Bolden swapped in and out of games 33 times last season. As a result, McGloin, desperate to prove he was the better quarterback with his limited snaps, sometimes attempted throws he knew he had no business trying.
During their two-season run together, McGloin completed 54 percent of his passes for 3,119 yards with 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, while Bolden completed 50 percent of his passes for 2,045 yards with just seven touchdowns and 14 picks. Bolden started 16 games, as McGloin made just 10 starts.
“You feel like they don’t want to start one guy, or they’re not comfortable or don’t have trust or faith in one guy, you kind of have to try to press yourself,” McGloin said. “Force yourself to make throws you don’t want to do and you can’t play your game. I guess that’s what I tried to do in (the Outback Bowl) and I tried to do it for the 2010-11 season.”
McGloin insists his relationship with the late Joe Paterno was always good, despite never starting until late in the season after consistently outperforming Bolden.
After all, it was Paterno who consistently brought up McGloin’s name during the lead-up to the 2008 season when Clark and Devlin were competing for the starting quarterback spot.
“We have a walk-on that’s really impressed me,” Paterno said on Aug. 8, 2008, in reference to McGloin. “A true freshman kid, and I won’t get into names because if I open it up for one freshman, I’ve got to open it up for a lot of kids.”
A year later, Paterno offered McGloin a scholarship following the team’s final training camp practice.
“No matter what anybody said or what happened, I do feel deep down that he was always in my corner and he always wanted me to do good things,” McGloin said of Paterno. “He was always behind me and always supported me.”
A fresh start
O’Brien, who brought with him to Penn State his pro-style offense that could potentially thrive with the right quarterback, gave McGloin an assignment during an offensive meeting.
He wanted McGloin to draw up a play on the whiteboard. ‘Gun, trips right, 64 special H sneak’ was the assignment. McGloin picked up a dry erase marker and went to work.
“He drew it up within about three seconds, neatly, and he knew the read, what everyone did,” O’Brien said. “He drew up the front, the coverage, the protection, where it was supposed to go. ... I’ll never forget it and it was ‘Bang!’ I just knew at that point that we had a kid that was working and wanted to be the starting quarterback.”
Shortly thereafter, O’Brien designated McGloin the starting quarterback heading into summer camp. A studious player who had already earned a degree in journalism by the time spring ball ended, McGloin was able to set aside much of his time and immersed himself into O’Brien’s playbook.
By the end of training camp, McGloin felt he had a solid knowledge of O’Brien’s NFL-style offense.
“I haven’t really been able to play my game until my senior season this season,” McGloin said. “Stats don’t lie. We’ve had some success with what we’ve been doing.”
That’s come from McGloin’s ability to recognize what alignment a defense is in, how to change out of a play at the last second that might not give his offense as good of a chance to move the ball.
He’s shattered his previous career bests. This season, McGloin has upped his completion percentage by nearly six points. He’s thrown for 3,066 yards and 23 touchdowns. For a player that has forced many throws in his career, ones he would like back, McGloin’s only thrown five interceptions this season.
“None of it has surprised me,” McGloin’s high school football coach Mike DeAntona said. “He’s a winner. ... There’s not going to be a kid on the football field that competes more and wants to win more than Matt McGloin does.”
McGloin credits Fisher with helping him with the mental aspects of playing quarterback.
“He’s always in a great mood and it can’t help but rub off on you,” McGloin said. “I could sit here and tell you we go through footwork drills, reads, mechanics, things like that, but the best thing people probably don’t understand is he’s helped me come really far in the mental game.”
While McGloin’s never-mince-words personality is sometimes compared to O’Brien’s level of intensity, McGloin and Fisher could be called polar opposites.
Fisher is reserved, laid back and speaks in a southern drawl that puts his players at ease in the meeting room. McGloin, meanwhile, tiptoes on a tightrope between confidence and cockiness.
His competitive nature is easy to decipher when he’s on the field. McGloin isn’t afraid to get in one of his teammate’s faces or in an opponent’s. He’ll flail his arms around if a play doesn’t work out. He’ll mimic Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ touchdown celebration after a scoring play.
His teammates love him for these qualities.
“I think with a guy like that leading the offense, it’s definitely big,” sophomore wideout Allen Robinson said. “We all know coming into drives, we see Matt all hyped up and that transfers to the plays. I think as a team we start to pick our level of play up as an offense.”
“What do you think your legacy is with (Penn State fans)?”
“I’m not sure,” McGloin says. “It’s what you guys think. It’s what they think.”
Having had a day to possibly ponder it, McGloin reconsiders. He hopes prospective Penn State players will see him as an example that much is possible no matter how one may come into the program.
After five years, McGloin is a finalist for the Burlsworth Trophy, awarded to the best player who started his career as a walk-on. O’Brien calls them ‘run-ons’ now, and players like McGloin will have to be instrumental in helping keep the Nittany Lions competitive for the next three seasons after NCAA sanctions have severely limited the amount of scholarships Penn State can award.
McGloin is hoping players that follow him will continue his trend.
“I hope they understand that it’s not how you get somewhere, it’s what you do when you get here,” McGloin said. “That’s something that I’ve always believed in, and to this day, I still believe in it.”
After he graduates with his second degree — this one in broadcast journalism — McGloin hopes to parlay what he’s learned in college into a career as a sports broadcaster. That is if playing professional football doesn’t work out. O’Brien said he’ll do everything in his power to get McGloin looks at the NFL level.
“I love watching him play,” O’Brien said. “I hope he tries to play forever.”
The odds are stacked against McGloin. Afterall, Clark — who was bigger, Morelli — who had a stronger arm, and Michael Robinson — who presented throwing and running qualities, were never able to secure jobs as NFL quarterbacks coming out of Penn State. There are naysayers that will say McGloin is too small or that he doesn’t have the physical tools to get it done in the NFL.
McGloin wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Until they tell me I can’t play anymore, then I’ll hang it up,” He said. “I wasn’t supposed to be play here at all. Do you remember that? I think I showed I’m capable of doing it. If you want to talk about skill set or performance, I will just go back to telling them I wasn’t supposed to play Division-I football, so who says I can’t play at that next level?”