STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The offensive coaching staffs at Alabama and Penn State began the week needing to resolve the same critical issue. Each team had two quarterbacks, neither of whom had differentiated himself enough during preseason camp or the season opener to win the starting job outright. There are two potential solutions in that situation. Alabama's staff chose one. Penn State's staff chose the other.
The Crimson Tide elected to play AJ McCarron over Phillip Sims. The only way McCarron was getting pulled was if he came out chucking multiple interceptions. The Nittany Lions elected to rotate Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin.
And now, the numbers.
Alabama QB AJ McCarron: 19-of-31, 163 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions. (Note the lack of periods in AJ. "My mom doesn't like to have dots in my name -- at all," Raymond Anthony McCarron Jr. said Saturday.)
Penn State QB Rob Bolden: 11-of-29, 144 yards -- 38 in garbage time -- zero touchdowns, one interception.
Penn State QB Matt McGloin: 1-of-10, zero yards, zero touchdowns, zero interceptions.
Final score: Alabama 27, Penn State 11.
Because of an injury suffered last month when a receiver collided with him at practice, Penn State coach Joe Paterno worked the game from the press box. Maybe the alternate vantage point made him see something the other 107,000-plus at Beaver Stadium couldn't. "I thought the quarterbacks played a pretty good football game," Paterno said. Later, Paterno said this: "Both kids handled themselves well. They didn't get a lot of help."
Actually, they did. Penn State's line delivered adequate pass protection -- no small feat against Alabama's ferocious defense. If a quarterback doesn't spend his day on his back against the Tide, he got plenty of help. Neither quarterback was sacked, and Bolden and McGloin consistently had time to throw. Tailback Silas Redd, who would start or crack the rotation at any Top 25 program, gained only 65 yards, but that number would have been higher had the quarterbacks completed a few more passes to keep Alabama's defense honest. Penn State's defense started each half strong, but withered as the offense kept quickly giving the ball back to Alabama to ram down the Nittany Lions' throats again.
Outside of a late touchdown drive long after the game was decided, Penn State's best possession was its first. Using Redd on the ground and short and intermediate passes from Bolden, the Nittany Lions moved 54 yards in 16 plays. They used all three timeouts in the process -- one was because of a player injury, so don't completely kill them -- but they moved the ball efficiently before Alabama stiffened in the red zone and forced a field goal. Bolden misfired on a third-and-16 pass on Penn State's second possession, but the Nittany Lions were in a terrible down-and-distance because of a holding penalty. Bolden had done nothing to suggest he couldn't continue to move the ball, but when Penn State got the ball next, McGloin took the field. This move had been scripted by the coaches, and they were going to rotate quarterbacks even if it threw the offense out of rhythm.
To crush McGloin for his play wouldn't be entirely fair. It's tough to judge quarterbacks who have to play wondering if their next throw will win them the job or earn them the hook. Alabama's McCarron didn't have to worry about that, and it showed.
"He was a little more comfortable," Alabama center William Vlachos said. "But they told him going in that he was the quarterback today. He didn't have to look over his shoulder."
McCarron didn't beat out Sims in the previous five weeks, but Alabama coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Jim McElwain felt that against a tough opponent on the road, the Tide needed to know the identity of their quarterback. Afterward, Saban said the competition remains open. It seems logical that Sims will get a shot next week against sacrificial lamb North Texas. But by the time Arkansas visits Bryant-Denny Stadium on Sept. 24, it's a safe bet the Tide will have one quarterback again. Given Saban's reaction Saturday, there is a good chance that quarterback will be McCarron. "I say, 'Good job,'" Saban said. "There was no but."
McCarron didn't put himself on any Heisman lists Saturday, but he did what he needed to allow Alabama to grind Penn State into dust over 60 minutes. Like Saban-era predecessors John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy, McCarron is coached by McElwain to avoid swashbuckling and embrace game management. "That's what coach preaches," McCarron said. "Touchdowns. Checkdowns. You want to live to play the next down."
That's what the Tide did. Meanwhile, in Saturday's third quarter, the Penn State quarterbacks combined at one point for five consecutive passes that should have been intercepted. Poor Alabama safety Robert Lester had two would-be picks reversed on replay reviews.
Would one quarterback have been more consistent? Maybe. Maybe not. But after two weeks of unspectacular quarterback play, it may be worth a try to give one quarterback a shot at an entire half or an entire game. Quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said he would have to watch the film and meet with his players before making any such decision, but he didn't think the swapping disrupted his quarterbacks' rhythm Saturday. "When you look at it, there were some good throws there," the younger Paterno said. "There were some plays there for us to take advantage of, and we didn't take them. I don't think it came down to rhythm at all."
If this were pro football, Penn State's general manager would have offered at halftime to trade three redshirting freshmen to Alabama for Sims. But it isn't pro football, and coaches must navigate the minefield of egos and coddling that is quarterback recruiting and then hope they chose wisely. Since 2008, Penn State has signed three quarterbacks. Bolden was one. McGloin, a former walk-on, was not. Paul Jones, a blue-chipper who signed in 2010, is academically ineligible this season. Kevin Newsome, who signed in 2009, left the program after getting buried on the depth chart. The Nittany Lions signed no quarterbacks in 2011. They signed none in 2008 because they held a scholarship open for a prized in-state recruit named Terrelle Pryor.
It might be that at his age and extreme level of dignity, Joe Paterno is incapable of spewing the pablum most elite quarterback prospects want to hear from coaches during the recruiting process. Maybe that's why the Nittany Lions have been unable to keep the quarterback cupboard stocked. No matter. They are stuck with the players they have. Penn State has plenty of talent at the other 21 positions, but it needs a clear leader for its offense to reach its full potential -- which in turn will allow the defense to reach its potential.
There is a football saying that probably predates Joe Paterno, and it is just as true today as it was when it was first uttered. "When you've got two quarterbacks," the saying goes, "you've got no quarterback."