STATE COLLEGE — It couldn’t have taken long for the kid from south Georgia and the kid from California to wonder exactly what they had signed up for.
Like some cruel trick drawn up by the football gods, Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson were greeted by snow when they walked into Beaver Stadium for their final test of the month.
Spring game, indeed.
The conditions for Saturday’s Blue-White Game — equal parts stinging snow and sunshine — may have been a good gauge for those unpredictable fall campaigns in the Big Ten. But after the scrimmage was over, Penn State was still no closer to settling on a starting quarterback.
For the second straight year, the defense won the game, beating the offense 67-47 using a scoring system based on big plays.
For the Nittany Lions, the most scrutinized numbers belonged to the two quarterbacks. And they were — surprise — remarkably similar.
Both sophomores went 9-for-15 with no turnovers. Bench threw for 99 yards and a touchdown while Ferguson had 90 yards with two scores. Bench also led the offense on another scoring drive capped off by an Akeel Lynch touchdown run.
“I’d say no, I’m not any closer (to deciding) as I sit here right now,” Lions coach Bill O’Brien said after the scrimmage. “I’m just not any closer. But I enjoy coaching both guys. And eventually, obviously, we’ll have to make a decision
“But I’m not ready to make that right now.”
O’Brien made no definitive statements on a starting quarterback after last year’s Blue-White Game, either. But the following week, he told all of his signal-callers in private that Matt McGloin had won the job.
A similar scenario doesn’t seem likely this time around. Especially not with heralded recruit Christian Hackenberg still a few months away from arriving on campus to throw his hat in the ring.
Until then, it’s back to studying for O’Brien.
“What I’ll do now is I’ll go back just by myself, and I’m going to watch all the (quarterback) film from the spring over the next week,” O’Brien said. “I think both guys did some really good things. I’ve said that all spring.”
Neither Bench nor Ferguson was made available for interviews on Saturday. A team spokesman said it was a “coach’s decision.”
So, just like in the first 14 practices of the spring, the guys had to do their talking on the field during the 15th and final session.
Bench looked in firm control of the first-team offense on the opening drive. He set up Lynch’s scoring run with a completion over the middle to Matt Zanellato. In the third quarter, Bench found first-year tight end Brent Wilkerson for a score.
Ferguson connected with tight end Jesse James (27 yards) and true freshman Richy Anderson for his two touchdowns. The former play looked to be out of bounds at first glance but the latter was one of the best throws of the afternoon.
More important than the numbers is both players’ mastery of the playbook. Their ability to read defenses. How much authority they command in the huddle.
Perhaps some of their teammates can give some insight into these intangibles.
“Oh, they’re pretty much the same,” said James, the hulking tight end.
“They have a lot of similar ways,” said Allen Robinson, the top wideout. “They’re not too much different. They’re going through the same stuff, so they don’t vary too much.”
Well, it was worth a shot.
In non-quarterback matters, Lynch showed his promise, rushing for 83 yards on 13 carries to go with his touchdown. Walk-on Deron Thompson led the team with 97 yards on the ground.
James had five grabs for 77 yards and the score. Zanellato caught four balls for 53 yards.
The defense won the contest thanks in large part to nine sacks, including two apiece from Brad Bars, Austin Johnson and Evan Schwan. Jesse Merise and Jonathan Zuk recorded interceptions of fellow walk-ons D.J. Crook and Austin Whipple, respectively.
Receiver-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams had a strong day, breaking up two passes. Valley View’s Nyeem Wartman showed off his sharp instincts by sniffing out a screen pass for a 3-yard loss.
Had it been an actual opponent on the receiving end of the hit instead of a teammate, the guy would still be embedded in the grass.
“The year for him to kind of soak it in as a redshirt freshman was good for him,” defensive coordinator John Butler said of Wartman. “And now he’s getting into the fire a little bit at (linebacker), he’s a good player who will continue to get better.”