For nearly as long as fans can remember, Penn State's opening football weekend has played out like a script. Joe Paterno mans the sidelines, peering through his iconic, thick-rimmed spectacles. Fans pack Beaver Stadium, more than 100,000 dressed for a White-Out. The players even fill the same tried-and-true roles: everydown tailback, fearless linebacker, levelheaded quarterback.
Come Sept. 3 against Indiana State, this year's Nittany Lions will likely offer a different attraction. And quite frankly, we don't yet know what.
"We're kind of figuring it out and kind of holding our cards close to our vest," said quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Jay Paterno.
The uncertainty starts under center, as Penn State has yet to announce a starting quarterback. The Lions alternated between true freshman Rob Bolden and sophomore Matt McGloin last year, and they couldn't be more different. Bolden -- who threatened to transfer this offseason -- is a dual-threat option, McGloin is a pocket passer. Bolden is a quiet leader, McGloin is feisty and boisterous. Bolden was a four-star recruit coming out of high school, McGloin is a former walk-on.
The two do share a similarity: They were both turnover prone last season, tossing a combined 17 interceptions, tied for most in the Big Ten.
"One thing we did in the offseason is we looked at every interception," said Paterno. "We graded all of the things we did wrong based on what they could and what they couldn't control."
The staff also presented both with an array of coverage schemes this spring, emphasizing improved awareness and decision-making. And while Paterno won't reveal his starter for the fall, he feels his quarterback will be better prepared than last season -- regardless of who plays.
"Simply because of experience, being more mature as it relates to understanding our system," Paterno said. "I think we'll have a lot more consistent play than we had last year."
Quarterback isn't the only position without a defined starter. The starting tailback also remains in question, with the Nittanys seeking to replace the program's alltime leading rusher in Evan Royster, who finished with 3,932 career rushing yards. The top candidates appear to be sophomore Silas Redd and senior Stephfon Green, who combined for 625 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Both are primarily speed backs, marking a departure from the traditional power runners (Royster, Tony Hunt, Larry Johnson) Penn State has employed in years past. Both, however, have grown under Royster's tutelage.
"The thing they learned from Evan is that you have to be patient," said running backs coach and co-offensive coordinator Galen Hall. "A lot of young people just wanna run on their own and not use their linemen."
If any aspect of the team breeds familiarity, it's the defense, as the secondary returns All-Big Ten honorable mentions cornerback D'Anton Lynn and safety Drew Astorino. Right end Jack Crawford looks primed for a standout senior year and 6-foot-5, 305-pound tackle Devon Still should pose all sorts of matchup problems, building off a team-leading four sacks and ten tackles for loss in 2010.
The unit does have issues, though. Someone needs to fill the void left by Pete Massaro, the starting defensive end out for the season with a left ACL tear. Michael Mauti, the linebacker placed on the preseason Butkus Award watch list, is transitioning from outside to middle linebacker. The process could have some kinks.
"Paul Posluszny moved from outside to inside," said defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. "The better players we've had have been able to move positions pretty easily."
These aren't your parents' Nittany Lions. The question is: How will this unfamiliar group fare?
That largely depends on a brutal final month of the season. From Nov. 12-26, Penn State faces a three-game gauntlet: home against Nebraska, at Ohio State and Wisconsin. It seems like an impossible stretch, though Paterno dismisses the notion.
"In '08, we had to play at Wisconsin, Michigan and at Ohio State," he said. "Everybody told our guys we couldn't win all three of them, and we did."
He also warns against equating uncertainty with ineptitude. Despite its reputation as a rush-first program, Penn State has demonstrated a newfound willingness to pass, throwing the ball as many as 44 times per game last season. That trend could continue come fall.
Or not. After all, Penn State's 2011 identity is still very much a mystery.
That doesn't mean their script won't have a happy ending.
"The good thing is right now we're kind of flying under the radar," said Paterno. "Usually when we have those kind of years, we do well."