STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Matt McGloin's game-day scowl was wiped away by a sly grin as he walked into Beaver Stadium.
In the crowd greeting the Penn State team at the tunnel entrance was a giant cutout bearing the image of his smiling face, with McGloin's family and friends among those frantically waving the cutout.
Finally entrenched as the starter at Penn State after two roller-coaster seasons, McGloin has a lot to smile about as the Nittany Lions (2-2) prepare for tougher competition this weekend when they visit Illinois (2-2) to open Big Ten play.
"I don't like the picture at all. It's not a good one at me," McGloin joked after last week's 24-13 win over Temple. "It's all supposed to be fun. College football is supposed to be fun."
Entering conference play, McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing yards (251.5 per game) and is tied with Nebraska's Taylor Martinez with a league-high nine touchdown passes. McGloin also has the only two rushing touchdowns of the season for Penn State, a couple of plunges from inside the 2 last week against Temple.
But he'll never be confused with Martinez, Michigan's Denard Robinson or Ohio State's Braxton Miller as a running threat out of the pocket.
No, McGloin is a scrappy throwback who seems to have taken to the tutelage of new head coach Bill O'Brien, the former position coach for Tom Brady of the New England Patriots.
"Every week he's improved on what he sees and getting us into the right play and using little tricks of the trade to help himself to get us into the right play," O'Brien said.
It's a position few could have imagined when McGloin arrived at Penn State in 2008 as a preferred walk-on -- a term, by the way, that McGloin disdains.
"Walk-ons do everything that scholarship players do," a terse McGloin said this month.
He eventually went on a scholarship. By 2010 as a third-year sophomore, McGloin was embroiled in a full-fledged quarterback controversy after the late head coach Joe Paterno alternated him and touted freshman Rob Bolden before McGloin won the job by season's end.
Bolden was the first true freshman to open the season as starting quarterback in Paterno's 46-year career at Penn State. McGloin was the first former-walk on to start at quarterback under Paterno.
Same story line in 2011, when Bolden began the year as starter before McGloin wrested the job away again down the stretch.
McGloin was the starting quarterback for Paterno's final game last Oct. 29 against Illinois, when he engineered a 10-play, 80-yard drive capped by Silas Redd's 3-yard touchdown run that gave Penn State a 10-7 victory and what was then Paterno's record 409th career victory. The win was later vacated due to NCAA sanctions.
O'Brien took over in January and installed a new playbook modeled after the Patriots' potent attack to spice up the passing game. After open auditions through spring practice, the first-year head coach settled on McGloin in the offseason to end a quarterback carousel that revolved for two years.
In the new offense, O'Brien seems to place a premium on smarts as well as athletic ability at the quarterback position.
"One of the things in playing quarterback in a system like ours is we put a lot on your plate, so to speak," O'Brien said this week. "You have to have a good deal of brain power and you have to be able to understand what you're watching on film and be able to take that to the practice field and then take it to the game."
McGloin has outlasted three once-prominent recruits who, at one time or another, were thought to have the potential to become established starters.
Kevin Newsome left Penn State before the 2011 season and transferred to Temple. Bolden was granted permission over the summer by O'Brien to transfer and ended up at LSU.
The latest departure is Paul Jones, a strong-armed sophomore who fell to third string on the depth chart. He was also practicing at tight end for several weeks before O'Brien announced Wednesday that Jones had left the team for personal reasons.
All three departing quarterbacks were holdovers from the Paterno era, as was McGloin. Now McGloin is the savvy senior who has not only had to master the new, complicated playbook, but break in a host of new players on offense.
"He's getting used to the system. He's rolling out a little bit, throwing the ball," Illinois defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. "He's doing the things he needs to do as a quarterback to make the team successful."
McGloin has built a nice rapport with sophomore wideout Allen Robinson, who leads the Big Ten in receptions (29), receiving yards (101 per game) and receiving touchdowns (five). A redshirt freshman, tight end Kyle Carter, has turned into a threat with 16 catches for 190 yards and a score.
"The one thing that was tough was getting a grasp on the offense," McGloin said. "But we've put the work in and it's paying off."
Now it's time to see if it will pay off for McGloin in Big Ten play, too.