STATE COLLEGE — It was “gun trips right 64 special H sneak.” Bill O’Brien remembers it like it was yesterday.
In a meeting during spring practice, O’Brien called quarterback Matt McGloin up to the board and told him to diagram the play. According to O’Brien, McGloin drew it up without hesitation – and perfectly. That’s when the first-year coach of the Nittany Lions knew he had his man.
“I knew at that point that we had a kid that was working and wanted to be the starting quarterback,” O’Brien said Saturday after Penn State’s 45-22 win over Indiana, a game in which McGloin set new school marks in career passing touchdowns, single-season completions and single-season passing yardage.
McGloin completed 22 of 32 passes for a career-high 395 yards and four touchdowns against a Hoosiers defense that will be happy to see its season end next week. There was one mistake on a ball that McGloin forced into coverage to Matt Lehman that was popped in the air and intercepted, but that’s always going to be a byproduct of McGloin’s game.
He’s confident, sometimes to a fault, but that confidence, coupled with a revamped offense and a surprising receiving corps led by sophomore Allen Robinson has led to the rebirth of the former walk-on quarterback from Scranton.
McGloin is nearly unrecognizable when compared to the kid who threw five interceptions in the 2011 Outback Bowl, or completed 1 of 10 passes for 0 yards last season in split-duty against Alabama. He’ll still make ill-advised throws from time-to-time, but that receiving corps has been there to bail him out.
His transformation, due in large part to O’Brien’s offense and the tutelage of quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher, has propelled Penn State to a 7-4 record with one game left and has McGloin 14th in the nation in passing yards (3,071) and 16th in passing touchdowns (23).
“As you saw his improvement, you saw his confidence rise,” Fisher said of McGloin. “And when a quarterback gets confident, he’s got a chance to play well and that’s what’s happened with Matt. He’s gotten more confident every week and he’s executing.”
Confidence has never been the issue for McGloin, who will turn 23 in two weeks. The youngest of three brothers, McGloin has always had a chip on his shoulder and made it a point to mix it up with the older kids when he was growing up.
He used that chip to earn a walk-on spot at Penn State and forced his way into the quarterback rotation in the 2010 season, finally seeing the field when starter Rob Bolden left with an injury during a game at Minnesota. McGloin went on to start five of the last six games that season, but struggled at points in split time with Bolden during the 2011 season.
He curried enough favor with O’Brien to be named the starter last June, and has taken the reins of the new coach’s complicated offensive scheme. His 6,190 career passing yards have him second all-time in program history.
“It’s a great honor,” McGloin said. “I’m truly blessed to be among some of the great Penn State quarterbacks. It feels good when your hard work pays off. I wouldn’t be able to do it without my teammates, and the coaching staff has brought me a long way.”
Perhaps no one has been as influential in the revolution of Matt McGloin as Robinson. The rangy, 6’3” sophomore is quietly making a name for himself and has set some records of his own during his first season as a starter.
Robinson set the school record for receptions in a season Saturday with his 65th, then went on to catch 10 passes for 197 yards and three touchdowns. All three of his scoring grabs demonstrated just how bright the future is for the budding star.
Twice he went up to grab the ball out of the air on fade routes that only come when a quarterback has the kind of unmitigated trust McGloin has in Robinson. The other was a screen that Robinson turned into a 53-yard sprint with a spin-move.
Their relationship is the product of time put in the offseason with McGloin perfecting timing not only with Robinson, but any receiver who was willing to do the work. Robinson is clearly McGloin’s top target, but others have stepped up, including senior Brandon Moseby-Felder, who caught key fourth-down and third-down passes during a scoring drive in Saturday’s third quarter after Indiana had cut the Penn State lead to six.
“He worked hard in the offseason and in the weight room,” Moseby-Felder said of his quarterback. “I’m glad it all paid off for him. On the field we’re close. We work well together.”
The symbiotic relationship between McGloin and all of his receivers has been a revelation in O’Brien’s first year in Happy Valley. So too has McGloin’s leadership.
Never known to be one to doubt his own ability, McGloin has blossomed into a field general of sorts, taking command of the offense and making the right adjustments when needed. O’Brien’s offense only works if coach and quarterback trust each other enough to make the right decisions.
“You have to have those traits to be a successful quarterback,” O’Brien said. “You have to have a brain that can work fast, you have to be competitive and you have to have a huge desire to win, and he has that.”
With one game left, there aren’t many records left for McGloin to break — he’s still more than 1,000 yards off of Zack Mills’ school mark for career passing yardage — but there’s still time to cement his legacy as one of the best to play the position at Penn State.
Not bad for a former walk-on.
“I’ve thought I’ve always had the ability,” McGloin said. “I’ve always had the players around me to do it. A couple other guys have set records. We’ve got great coaching, great players around us and we’re able to make plays.”