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On Aug. 31, the day before Joe Paterno would announce the identity of Penn State's starting quarterback, the cellphone of Robert Bolden Sr. quietly trembled with some inside information. His son, Rob, a true freshman, had sent him a simple, understated text message, wryly referencing a privilege exclusive to the first-string signal-caller in Happy Valley: "I'll be getting off the bus first."
The elder Bolden, like most anyone familiar with JoePa's 45-year tenure with the Nittany Lions, was taken somewhat aback. "I knew my son would have an opportunity to get on the field," Robert admits, "but I didn't expect him to get there and start." With excellent reason: Before the 83-year-old Paterno followed the 18-year-old Bolden off the blue team bus and into Beaver Stadium around 10:30 a.m. last Saturday, the number of true freshmen who had started a season opener under center for Paterno was zero.
But thanks to No. 19 Penn State's 44--14 dismantling of Youngstown State—Bolden was 20 of 29 for 239 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception, the best passing day by a true freshman in program history—the teenager has quickly gone from the Detroit Catholic League to justifying a radical paradigm shift. Less than 72 hours before the game, Paterno had described his depth chart with all the conviction of a student still puzzling over a multiple-choice exam. Bolden, he said, was merely choice "1A"; untested sophomores Matt McGloin (a former walk-on) and Kevin Newsome (last year's backup to Daryll Clark), were "1B" and "1C," respectively. All three were slated to play against the I-AA Penguins, if mostly to audition publicly. Explains quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, Joe's second-oldest son, "A friend of mine trains hunting dogs. One of the things he always says is, 'You can have one who's got all the bloodlines and all the ability, but when the gun goes off, you want to see if they chase the rabbit or come and hide behind your leg.'"
The 6'4", 221-pound Bolden—widely regarded as one of the top four QB recruits in the 2010 class, out of St. Mary's Prep in Orchard Lake, Mich.—didn't hide. "He can throw the ball; he's got the ability, the size you want, the quick release," Jay Paterno said after the game. "He's poised. He didn't panic."
A lesser freshman might well have. Hindered by an uncharacteristically rusty ground game—seven of the offense's first eight plays were runs for a total of 18 yards—the Nittany Lions trailed 7--6 with less than two minutes left in the first half. But Bolden then punctuated a 68-yard drive by hitting Brett Brackett on a play-action pass for a 20-yard score (the receiver's first of two TDs on the day). Bolden left early in the fourth quarter after putting the game out of reach; quarterbacks 1B and 1C then took their turns, but neither threw a pass.
Yes, there were some freshman mistakes: an interception after a receiver fell; a failure to loudly enunciate in the huddle amid the 101,213 in attendance (one lineman had to assure him, "The defense won't be able to hear you"); a series of overthrows, largely owing to his rocket right arm. After he tried forcing a couple of balls early, Jay Paterno's voice would echo in Bolden's headset: "I know you want to throw this pass, but you gotta continue to see more of the field."
It's not a secret that any hope the team has of duplicating last year's 11--2 record hinges on that accelerated learning curve. Penn State's defense, ninth in the country in 2009, should again hold stout. And Bolden, who can also run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, will certainly have the pieces to flourish. Senior tailback Evan Royster, just 441 yards away from breaking the Nittany Lions' alltime rushing record, remains the engine of the "spread HD" offense. The veteran receiving corps of Brackett (6'6"), Derek Moye (6'5") and Graham Zug (6'2") is immense.
All will need to be in top form this Saturday night at No. 1 Alabama—a test so brutal for a freshman quarterback that Jay Paterno likens it to "studying Mandarin for five days and expecting to be fluent." Joe Paterno deems 'Bama the best team he has seen since the 1986 Miami Hurricanes. (JoePa and the Nittany Lions, incidentally, beat that No. 1--ranked team 14--10 in the Fiesta Bowl.) Bolden has been talking about this very game with his father ever since he committed to Penn State in July '09; at last, once the bus rolls up to Tuscaloosa, it'll be the 18-year-old versus college football's reigning national champs. There's nowhere left to hide.