The last time Matt McGloin faced an Urban Meyer-coached team, when Penn State played Florida in the 2011 Outback Bowl, he threw five interceptions. The last time the Nittany Lions' quarterback faced Ohio State, 11 months ago, he completed just 10-of-18 passes for 88 yards.
Three months ago, the NCAA banned Penn State from the postseason, prompting star tailback Silas Redd and top receiver Justin Brown to transfer. McGloin was left as one of two returning offensive starters, and pundits universally predicted the program to plummet. Season-opening losses to Ohio and Virginia seemed to validate that opinion.
And then McGloin went out and made us all look dumb.
Heading into Saturday's showdown with 8-0 Ohio State, McGloin -- who entered the season with a career 54.5 completion percentage, 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions -- has been one of the nation's most surprising standouts. He has led Penn State to five straight wins, amassing a 62.5 completion percentage and 14-to-2 touchdown-to interception ratio while throwing for a career-high 1,788 yards.
"A lot went into getting here," said McGloin, a Scranton, Pa., native. "There's been some ups and downs. It's kind of nice to be the guy for your senior season, to be having some success."
Last week at Iowa, the same quarterback who routinely used to make viewers wince with his forced attempts into coverage eluded a pass-rusher, scrambled to his right and threw a dart downfield to tight end Jesse James for a 31-yard touchdown. On a fourth-and-three in the first quarter, he cocked once, twice and then hit tight end Kyle Carter just high enough to beat his defender for a 34-yard gain. Three plays later, McGloin stood in the pocket and waited patiently for receiver Allen Robinson to break free for an eight-yard touchdown. McGloin would finish the night 26-of-38 for 289 yards in a
"He's much improved," Hawkeyes linebacker James Morris said afterward. "That program as a whole has more of an identity this year, and that starts up at the top."
McGloin received no shortage of tutelage from first-year coach Bill O'Brien's staff in the offseason, but one nugget from strength coach Craig Fitzgerald particularly stood out. He told the 6-foot-1, 210-pound former walk-on to "keep playing with a chip on your shoulder." It's working.
"I'm always looking for something more," said McGloin. "I have a feeling in the back of my head that people never gave me any sort of respect, they've never respected my ability. That's what I'm out there playing for, to make them regret not believing in me."
Among those he once struggled to win over was Penn State's former coaching staff.
McGloin spent the 2010 and '11 seasons in a constant state of flux, rotating with the more touted but no more effective Rob Bolden. It took until Week 8 last season before McGloin finally claimed the full-time starting job. And while it took the heinous and unthinkable Jerry Sandusky scandal to force a regime change in Happy Valley, the ensuing hire of former Patriots offensive coordinator O'Brien proved to be a blessing for McGloin's development. It wasn't just that O'Brien formerly coached Tom Brady or installed an NFL offense. More importantly, the coach put his trust in McGloin, naming him the starter three months before the season and giving him the keys to an offense where the quarterback calls the play.
McGloin goes to the line of scrimmage with his choice of two plays (run-run, pass-pass or run-pass), reads the defense and makes a call accordingly -- just like Brady. That's not how things used to work. "When you're splitting time, you don't want to upset any of the coaches so you run the play that they called," said McGloin.
Of course, O'Brien doesn't treat every quarterback like Brady. And he didn't have that much time after his Patriots' Super Bowl run to assess what he had.
"Right away, I saw that he was a very competitive guy. That stood out to me when I first got the job," said O'Brien. "When spring practice rolled around, the next thing that impressed me was his brain. After the first couple meetings of spring practice, I knew he'd be able to pick up what we wanted him to do."
But then the NCAA dropped a bomb on Penn State's program following the release of the Freeh Report in July, issuing a four-year postseason ban and massive scholarship reductions beginning next year. Every player on the roster was granted free-agent status, allowed to transfer without sitting out a year.
Among those who escaped the apparent sinking ship were the Nittany Lions' two most proven playmakers, tailback Redd (to USC) and receiver Brown (Oklahoma). Redd's replacement, sophomore Bill Belton, suffered an ankle injury in the third quarter of the season-opener against Ohio, a game in which the Nittany Lions failed to score after halftime. He missed the next three games. Four missed field goals doomed Penn State the next week in a 17-16 loss at Virginia, though the offense didn't help matters by gaining a paltry 3.9 yards per play.
Still, "as the season's worn on, we've found out there are other guys that can make plays," said O'Brien, who, like former boss Bill Belichick, loves using his tight ends. Robinson, a sophomore, and Carter, a redshirt freshman, emerged as go-to receivers from Week 1, but McGloin soon began connecting with junior Brandon Moseby-Felder, sophomore Alex Kenney and tight ends Matt Lehman, a previously seldom-used junior, and James, a true freshman. Fifth-year senior fullback Michael Zordich moved to tailback and started getting carries.
Meanwhile, O'Brien kept pushing the pace, installing a no-huddle attack the Nittany Lions refer to as their NASCAR offense. Penn State ran 99 plays in a come-from-behind 39-28 win over Northwestern Oct. 6 and 90 plays last week at Iowa. After falling behind 28-17 late in the third quarter against the Wildcats, McGloin led touchdown drives of 18 and 15 plays, each spanning 80-plus yards.
"A couple of weeks ago, you really started to see what this offense is capable of doing," said McGloin. "There were definitely flashes of it throughout the season, but Northwestern was where we really came alive, seeing how fast we're capable of scoring."
Now, a quarterback and team that most figured would sink into oblivion is hosting one of the weekend's most anticipated games. Both Penn State (5-2, 3-0 Big Ten) and No. 9 Ohio State (8-0, 4-0) are undefeated in conference play, and the fact that neither team is eligible for the league championship hasn't fazed the fans (Penn State students are camped out in 140 tents this week in renamed Nittanyville) or the participants.
"After everything that's happened these two teams deserve it," McGloin said of the expected atmosphere. "The way were approaching this now, especially as seniors, is we have five games left to wear the Penn State helmets. We're playing each game like it's our last game, so this is like one of our bowl games."
Those five remaining games will ultimately define McGloin's legacy in Happy Valley.
An unrecruited prospect five years ago, he gained admiration in 2010 by beating out three former four-star recruits to earn his first start -- then almost immediately garnered backlash for his interception-strewn performances. His ascension back to the starting job last season came just before the Sandusky scandal engulfed Penn State, and a locker room fight between he and receiver Curtis Drake last December resulted in a concussion that kept McGloin out of last year's TicketCity Bowl.
The sanctions threatened to ruin this season before it began, but McGloin is doing his part to ensure the 2012 team is not forgotten. "We have five games left to make it a special season," said McGloin. "My story hopefully isn't over yet."
Unlike so many other stories at Penn State over the past 12 months, McGloin's has a chance to finish with a happy ending.