There are lots of areas Penn State needs to continue to improve, but none are nearly as important as quarterback (not even kicker!)
The Penn State secondary has a hole, or two. The pass rush needs a little more oomph. The running backs have to hit the hole harder. The receivers need to get more aggressive. The offensive line must pick up the blitz better. (As for the kicking/punting, we're in favor of it.)
All of this is happening, to some degree, through the first two games of the Bill O'Brien/NCAA sanctions/post-Sandusky era. Yep, Penn State improved in most areas from Game 1 to Game 2, though the Lions incurred a brutally tough 17-16 defeat at Virginia.
Almost every team with new offensive and defensive systems, and a slew of new starters, does improve over the course of a season. So optimism remains despite the 0-2 record.
But one player carries Penn State's fortunes more than anyone. PSU still can have a memorable season if this one Lion keeps getting better:
QB Matt McGloin.
But will he? In his fifth year at PSU, his third year on the field, and his first year in a new offensive system, McGloin has provided plenty of reasons to believe he can't lead a winning team.
But after Saturday, there's more reason than ever to believe he can.
Head coach Bill O'Brien made it clear this weekend McGloin is the unquestioned No. 1. Cannon-armed redshirt sophomore Paul Jones is now the No. 3 QB and more likely to see the field soon at TE (he could blossom there), and new No. 2 QB Steven Bench is a true freshman who just got to Happy Valley this summer.
O'Brien's 2012 wagon is hitched to McGloin.
O'Brien and McGloin are PSU's gutsy duo: O'Brien rolling the dice again and again - the Lions are 5-of-7 on 4th down already in two games - and McGloin getting battered and knocked out of the game, and coming back for more.
Most of the media focus this week will be on the kicking failures. No doubt, PSU must do better there, and it will: No way the Lions make only 20% of their field goals the rest of this season, as Sam Ficken did Saturday. Sixty percent is an attainable goal.
But the focus should be on McGloin. He showed true grit Saturday, the type that commands the respect of his teammates - permanently. He absorbed hard, clean shots twice on the same spot on his right (throwing) elbow, in a matter of minutes, knocking him out of the game.
In obvious, extreme pain, with his arm wrapped, McGloin came back to lead his team to the brink of victory, on the road.
It's appropriate that McGloin is the face of the program right now: A fiery former walk-on -- er, "run-on," as O'Brien has taken to calling the PSU non-scholarship players -- he is a scrappy, fitting representative for this sanction-saddled era of Penn State football.
Saturday was the best game of his career, though it was only decent statistically: 19-of-35 (54.3%), 197 yards, 2 TD, 0 int., with the zero interceptions clearly being his best stat.
More importantly, McGloin overcame real adversity: The injury, the late deficit and the emotional deflation over the missed kicks. He battled through it. These are moments that elevate a player, even in defeat.
After PSU ceded the lead late, McGloin smoothly operated the 2-minute drill. With 1:28 to go and one timeout, McGloin, on the road, deftly maneuvered the Lions 50 yards into FG range with six completions, never using the timeout.
He also hit the key deep ball during Saturday's game. The previous week vs. Ohio, McGloin missed on two critical long passes. Against Virginia, he threw a 30-yard strike down the middle to Allen Robinson for the go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter.
He still made costly mistakes, which O'Brien and QB coach Charlie Fisher are sure to harp on. Among them: a 3rd-down sack in the first quarter pushed a FG attempt from 30 to 40 yards. You just can't take a big loss there. Throw the ball away.
And while centering the ball for the kicker might be a good move, as McGloin did before the fated final FG attempt, yielding a chunk of yardage to do it is not. McGloin backed up three yards, making the attempt unnecessarily longer for a rattled kicker, from 39 to 42 yards. (With PSU seemingly destined to play many close games this season, McGloin actually might have to do this again a few times.)
Most importantly, McGloin must get better at progressing quickly through his reads, from option 1 to 2 to 3. He always has locked onto his first read for too long. This is the primary thing he must do better. He showed signs of improvement against Virginia.
Saturday vs. Navy is a huge day for McGloin and PSU. He will be quarterbacking a team playing a must-win game. Lose again, lose to a team that lost its opener to Notre Dame by 40, and the Lions will be 0-3 and totally demoralized.
Navy has had a bye week to prepare, and surely it's triple-option offense will cause some problems for the PSU defense.
The offense must win this game.
If McGloin keeps the turnovers down, if he connects on most of the available big plays, if he moves through his progressions quickly instead of laboring on option 1, the offense will take off.
McGloin has the tools to make these adjustments. If he does, then he will become one of the better QBs in the Big Ten, and elevate PSU to a winning season.
If not, the losses will mount, the 5th year senior's career will end up on the bench, and the season likely will spiral into despair.