Penn State offense still lacks identity

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Two games into the 2011 season, the most important question surrounding the Penn State Nittany Lions hasn't been answered.

It isn't whether or not coach Joe Paterno will retire after the season (keep on asking, folks).

It isn't even who should start at quarterback, although that question is closely related. But the issue goes deeper than Rob Bolden vs. Matthew McGloin.

What is Penn State's offensive identity?

"It's definitely still a work in progress," McGloin said. "Today was definitely a football game to be able to see we're at offensively. In my opinion, we're not where we want to be yet."

That much is clear after a 27-11 loss to No. 3 Alabama. But how can Penn State's offense expect to make progress without a clear identity?

"Offensive identity?" receiver Derek Moye said. "Honestly, we don't have one. I don't know. We've got to get one."

Other players remain just as mystified.

"It's still early, we've still got a lot of games," running back Silas Redd said. "I really can't tell you what our identity is."

Asked to identify Penn State's offense, guard DeOn'tae Pannell offered a hopeful answer.

"Untapped potential," he said.

Pannell paused.

"We don't really have an identity."

You can't beat the No. 3 team in the country -- and quite possibly the best defense in the country -- without knowing who you are on offense. And you certainly can't pull off the upset on a day when that team figures out who it is on offense.

Alabama's offense isn't a finished product, but the Tide know who they are and who will lead them in the coming weeks. Coach Nick Saban made the decision to go with AJ McCarron at quarterback, and the sophomore came through with a solid, mistake-free performance in his first career road start.

Penn State's coaching staff could take a cue from Saban when it comes to Bolden and McGloin.

Make. A. Decision.

The coaches had all spring to evaluate the quarterbacks and all fall camp. They also had the season opener against FCS Indiana State. And yet there's still no decision on a starter.

Quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said the plan was to give Bolden two series Saturday and then give McGloin two series. And that's exactly what Penn State did.

The rotation continued throughout the game: Bolden, McGloin, Bolden, McGloin.

Like a blinking light for an offense stuck in neutral.

"It would be good to have one quarterback, yeah," Redd said. "But both of those guys are good. That's no excuse for us."

Both of them are good, at least in practice, according to Jay Paterno. One hasn't separated himself. They continue to push each other. The competition is good for both and for the team.

The neck-and-neck race Monday through Friday has spilled over into Saturday.

"When they're both practicing really well," Jay Paterno said, "it's kind of hard to tell one to sit down."

But you have to in order to help the offensive identity take shape.

Although neither quarterback lit up Alabama, Bolden appeared to separate himself Saturday. He led both Penn State scoring drives, accounted for 11 of the team's 12 completed passes and all 144 of its passing yards. While he was intercepted once and nearly had other passes picked off, he made some good throws and showed some decent mobility, diving into the end zone for a two-point conversion.

McGloin's line: 1-for-10 passing, zero yards.

"I wish I could have just went back-to-back-to-back, but it's Joe's decision and I have to do what he does," Bolden said. "If I was running things, I would be the only guy out there."

Joe Paterno remains the man in charge. Paterno didn't put Saturday's loss on Bolden and McGloin.

"I thought the quarterbacks played a pretty good football game," Paterno said. "They had one or two throws I'd like to get back, but [the receivers have] got to catch the ball from them. ... The kids handled themselves well, didn't get a lot of help."

Paterno is right. The receivers and tight ends could be helping Bolden and McGloin.

A diving Devon Smith couldn't corral a beautifully thrown ball by Bolden on the first play of scrimmage. The normally sure-handed Moye couldn't come down with some catchable passes. Penn State lost momentum for good in the second quarter after tight end Andrew Szczerba fumbled the ball after catching a pass from Bolden.

"As a receiving corps, we've got to make some more plays," Moye said.

Penn State needs all its offensive position groups to step up and form an identity. But figuring out the quarterback is a vital step in the process.

Can an offense have an identity with two quarterbacks?

"Yes," Jay Paterno said. "We had it in '99 with Rashard Casey and Kevin Thompson. We were a very, very good offensive football team that year."

Penn State also had one of the nation's most talented teams in 1999. It opened the season by thumping No. 4 Arizona 41-7 in the Pigskin Classic. The Lions haven't beaten an Associated Press top-5 team since that day.

Times have changed. Penn State is no longer a nationally elite program, as Saturday showed.

Joe Paterno said he still feels he has a good team, a message echoed by his players. Penn State's defense showed some good signs Saturday, particularly in the front seven.

"We've got a lot of big goals this season," Pannell said. "Whichever way can lead us to a Big Ten championship, that's what I want done."

Can Penn State get to Indianapolis with a two-quarterback system?

"I've seen it done," Pannell said, "but not much."