STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Joe Paterno's decision paid off.
After beating out two sophomores in a spirited preseason competition for the starting quarterback job, true freshman Rob Bolden rewarded his Hall of Fame coach's confidence Saturday with 239 yards passing and two touchdowns in No. 19 Penn State's 44-14 rout of FCS school Youngstown State.
It was a promising debut for an 18-year-old making the first start in a season opener for a true freshman quarterback in Paterno's 45 years as head coach.
"He has got an arm, he's got a little poise, he did some things a little better than the other guys on more occasions," Paterno said. "There are days I came off the field not knowing who I wanted to play."
It sure seems like Bolden has earned a start for next week's showdown at top-ranked Alabama.
Not so fast, Paterno said.
"We're going to play it week by week, practice by practice and hopefully come up with different situations, and we'll go from there," said Paterno, seemingly exasperated at times by any mention of the quarterback competition. "Whether that means we'll have one quarterback all year, or three alternating, or what, I really don't know right now."
Bolden finished 20 of 29 passing with one interception — and that came after receiver Derek Moye slipped to the turf on his route. Brett Brackett caught both of Bolden's TD passes and finished with career highs of eight catches for 98 yards, while Chaz Powell had a 100-yard kickoff return for a score to open a decisive second half.
Youngstown State's own new quarterback, redshirt freshman Kurt Hess, was impressive, too, going 21 of 25 passing for 189 yards and two scores. One of those was off a screen to receiver Dominique Barnes that turned into an 80-yard score to give the Penguins a four-point lead late in the first quarter.
"It sent a message that we were here to play," said Youngstown State's Eric Wolford, who lost his head-coaching debut. "We practiced good all week and we believed we could win the football game and we had the plays."
But Bolden settled in on offense, the defense settled down and Penn State overwhelmed the Penguins with too much talent.
"Obviously we're disappointed. We had our opportunities and didn't step up to the plate like we were supposed to," Wolford said.
Nearly everyone after the game was asked about the new quarterback — except for Bolden himself. Penn State typically doesn't allow true freshman to talk to reporters, and with Paterno trying to limit pressure on Bolden, it's unlikely he'll be making the media rounds any time soon.
"He showed above and beyond what was expected with his poise and confidence," said Brackett, the 6-foot-6 senior captain who proved to be Bolden's favorite target.
With Penn State trailing 7-6, Bolden hit Derek Moye on a third-and-10 for a 27-yard gain to the Penguins 41. Six plays later, Brackett caught a strong throw over the middle at the 1, eluded the grasp of safety Andre Elliott and burst into the end zone for a 20-yard TD pass.
Unsettled early after missed tackles by the defense and a slow start for the offensive line, the blue and white-clad fans at Beaver Stadium breathed a collective sigh of relief.
It only got better from there for the Nittany Lions.
Collin Wagner kicked a 48-yard field goal — one of three first-half field goals of over 40 yards — to close the first half. Powell opened the second with his 100-yard kickoff return dash to the end zone to make it 23-7. Youngstown State challenged, but the play was upheld after a review.
Derrick Thomas leveled Youngstown State's Jamaine Cook at the 23 on the ensuing kickoff, a big hit that may have sparked a Penn State defense that appeared to be sleepwalking at times early on. The Penguins went three and out on their next drive, capped by Chris Colasanti's big hit on a short pass over the middle to Adaris Bellamy on third down.
Bolden then hit Brackett again on the next drive on a pretty 22-yard TD pass down the right sideline for a 30-7 lead with 8:56 in the third — and the Nittany Lions were well on their way to a season-opening rout.
Paterno's son and quarterback coach Jay Paterno said Bolden's poise and maturity in camp helped set him apart. He hinted that Bolden should go into practice next week as the starter.
"Monday and Tuesday they're going to compete, and he'll run with the (first team) I imagine. ... There's no reason for him not to based on what we've seen," Jay Paterno said. "But we're still going to compete every week.