Commentary

QBs Miller, McGloin adapt and thrive

Originally Published: October 26, 2012
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

Urban Meyer didn't recruit Braxton Miller to Ohio State, and Bill O'Brien didn't recruit Matt McGloin to Penn State.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesOhio State is finding ways to maximize Braxton Miller's skill set in Urban Meyer's spread offense.

It just seems that way after watching Miller and McGloin play this fall.

Miller and McGloin have been the Big Ten's best quarterbacks this season, and they've both elevated their play while operating in new offenses for offensive-minded head coaches. A system change can sidetrack a quarterback's career -- there are numerous examples in the Big Ten and elsewhere -- but the new schemes ushered in at both Ohio State and Penn State have transformed Miller and McGloin, respectively.

Miller is among the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy, racking up 1,384 pass yards, 959 rush yards and 21 touchdowns (11 pass, 10 rush).

McGloin has been arguably the biggest surprise for a surprisingly good Penn State team, leading the Big Ten in passing (255.4 ypg) with 14 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in 259 pass attempts. McGloin has accounted for 19 of Penn State's 26 offensive touchdowns, while Miller has accounted for more than half of Ohio State's 40 offensive touchdowns.

The two quarterbacks haven't just passed the fitness tests for their respective offenses. They've aced them.

Miller and McGloin square off Saturday night when Ohio State puts its 8-0 record on the line against a Penn State squad that has won five straight.

"It's a match made in heaven, so to speak," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said of Miller and the spread. "Every week is a challenge for us as a staff to make sure we're utilizing [Miller's] talents to the best of his ability, too. He's such a rare, unique talent physically that we want to make sure we maximize his potential and allow him to grow in the offense."

Miller ran a version of the spread offense in high school but came to Ohio State to play for Jim Tressel, who, while sprinkling in some spread elements with ex-Buckeye quarterback Terrelle Pryor, used mostly a traditional pro set.

Although Tressel resigned before Miller's freshman year, Ohio State kept the same offensive staff and structure in place last season. Miller moved into the starting role in his fourth collegiate game and led a highly ineffective offense that Buckeye fans had some labels for (we can't print them here) -- but one that couldn't be called a true spread. He led Ohio State with 715 rush yards and seven touchdowns and fired 13 touchdowns and four interceptions in limited work as a passer.

"I saw [the potential] last year when I watched him," said Meyer, who served as an ESPN analyst for several Ohio State broadcasts in 2011. "The competitive nature, I didn't know that until I got to meet him and watch him work. His skill set, though, immediately I saw that."

McGloin's skill set didn't jump out quite as much. While Miller came to Ohio State as the nation's No. 4 quarterback recruit, according to ESPN's RecruitingNation, McGloin was a walk-on from hardscrabble Scranton, Pa. He had just two pass attempts as a redshirt freshman at Penn State before moving into a featured role from 2010-11, when he started a total of 10 games but played the majority of snaps for an offense that ranked near the bottom the Big Ten in scoring both seasons.

Expectations for Miller were high entering 2012, while they were tempered for McGloin, whose selection as the team's starting quarterback late this spring elicited complaints from much of Nittany Nation. But O'Brien's system has brought out the best in the fifth-year senior.

"Coach O'Brien gave the keys to the offense to Matt," said sophomore Allen Robinson, McGloin's top target and the Big Ten's leading receiver with 80.4 yards per game. "[O'Brien] calls the plays, but Matt has to check different plays, make different reads and even doing audibles and stuff at the line. So I think this is definitely an offense that fits Matt.

"Matt is definitely in command at the line of scrimmage."

McGloin isn't the biggest quarterback (6-1, 210). Nor is he the fastest, despite five rushing touchdowns this season. His best attributes are from the neck up, which has paid off in grasping O'Brien's complex, NFL-style offense in a matter of months.

At the end of the day, if you've got a guy that's going to work hard and he's smart and he's competitive, you'll take that guy any day of the week as your quarterback.

--Penn State coach Bill O'Brien on QB Matt McGloin

"He has a really good brain, and he understands things," O'Brien said. "He can watch film with you and have an idea of how you want to run the ball, how you want to throw the ball, situational football. You don't have to tell him twice. That's No. 1, he's a bright guy. No. 2, he's very, very competitive and tough. He's a tough guy. If you know anything about Scranton, Pa., that's all I hear about every day, how tough it is in Scranton. And he's right. …

"At the end of the day, if you've got a guy that's going to work hard and he's smart and he's competitive, you'll take that guy any day of the week as your quarterback."

McGloin has enjoyed learning the inner workings of an NFL offense, and he has forged a strong connection with O'Brien. Although O'Brien describes himself and McGloin as "both Irish, and maybe we both have a bit of a temper," they haven't butted heads very often.

Asked if he and O'Brien would ever have a sideline exchange like the one O'Brien had last season with Tom Brady, McGloin laughed and said, "We're too much alike to get into any type of arguments like that." As Robinson notes of McGloin, "He's our coach on the field."

McGloin was at his best in last week's 38-14 win against Iowa, completing 26 of 38 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns. He showed tremendous recognition of his receivers and tight ends, connecting with nine of them, and looked nothing like a quarterback operating in a new system.

[+] EnlargeMatt McGloin
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireMatt McGloin's best attributes are from the neck up, which has paid off in grasping Bill O'Brien's NFL-style offense.

"It just allows me to get out there and mentally have some success," he said afterward. "To know what I'm doing with the football, know if this is a good play or this isn't a good play. We don't want to run bad plays in this offense, and that's something I've always been good at, getting us into the right play."

McGloin, by the way, threw for just 133 yards with a touchdown and an interception the year before against Iowa in State College.

"I'm not saying he wasn't a good quarterback last year, but he wasn't leading the Big Ten in passing," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He's representative of their football team. He's improved every week."

Ohio State's coaches didn't need to be sold on Miller's athleticism as a spread quarterback. But Herman, the Buckeyes' new offensive coordinator, had reservations about Miller as a passer, understandable as Ohio State barely threw the ball in 2011, attempting just four throws (completing one) in a win at Illinois.

Herman's worries went away after Ohio State's first spring practice.

"I said, 'Wow, this kid can really throw the football,'" Herman recalled. "Obviously, I already knew how athletic he was. You saw the raw athleticism and the body type."

Miller didn't need to be sold on the spread. Herman describes the pitch he and Meyer made as "about as easy as it gets." As an elite level ball carrier -- Meyer calls Miller and former Florida star Percy Harvin the best runners he has ever coached -- with an underrated arm, Miller saw what everyone else did.

He has recorded five 100-yard rushing performances this season, averages 6.8 yards per carry and needs just 41 yards to become the first Ohio State quarterback to run for 1,000 yards in a season.

"You could tell a year ago that he could be a guy that could play in the spread offense," said Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, who has run the spread offense since 2000. "They did that some, they just didn't do it all the time. What they're doing now fits him perfectly, and the more he plays, he'll be more settled in the throwing game and be a complete player.

"He's going to be one of the great players in college football."

Miller has been an even better fit than Herman expected.

"The whole puzzle came together," Herman said.

For both Miller and McGloin, a new offense was simply the missing piece.