TUSCALOOSA _ It's kind of nice to know that even in his 61st year of coaching, the 45th as Penn State's head coach, Joe Paterno can still be surprised.
For example, the other day the 83-year-old learned that Rob Bolden, the first true freshman to ever start a season opener at quarterback for him, has former Alabama All-American Don McNeal for a great-uncle.
"I think it's great," Paterno said.
Yet what he really doesn't want is for Bolden to surprise him on the field and try and do too much. It worked last week when he completed 20 of 29 passes for 239 yards, two touchdowns and one interception as Penn State defeated Youngstown State, 44-14.
In addition to sharing the Big Ten conference's inaugural Freshman of the Week award with Michigan State running back LeVeon Bell, Bolden received high praise from the coach of his next opponent, the University of Alabama's Nick Saban: "He sure didn't play like a freshman last week. He played extremely well, was very poised, is a good passer and is very athletic and accurate."
However, when it comes to facing the Crimson Tide's aggressive defense, the term freshman is frequently synonymous with fresh meat, especially when visiting Bryant-Denny Stadium.
"He's going to have his problems Saturday," Paterno said. "He's going to get knocked on his ... we can't protect him like we did against Youngstown. He's going to get knocked around, he's going to have trouble finding open people. It's not going to be easy for him, but I don't think he's going to lose his poise.
"Is he going to have the kind of success he had against Youngstown? No. Alabama is too good for that. But, I hope he comes out of that ballgame feeling that he's learned something and hopefully we've put him in a position where he can at least have some success."
Freshman quarterbacks are pretty rare to begin with, especially true freshmen, and are rarely associated with winning teams. For example, Matt Barkley started at Southern California, Tate Forcier did the same at Michigan and Landry Jones stepped in at Oklahoma last season, and all three powerhouses had disappointing finishes (although there were obviously numerous reasons).
Of the top 100 quarterbacks in passing efficiency last season, only 15 were freshman with just one in the top 30 (Stanford's Andrew Luck at No. 21).
Overall, Alabama has faced eight freshman quarterbacks since Saban arrived in 2007, most in relief. The most recent, of course, was redshirt freshman Garrett Gilbert, who got thrust into the BCS National Championship Game after Marcell Dareus knocked Colt McCoy to the sideline. Fans well remember that he had two touchdown passes to pull Texas within 24-21, but he completed just 15 of 40 attempts (37.5 percent) for 186 yards and had five turnovers - four interceptions and a very costly fumble.
Last year the Crimson Tide was supposed to face North Texas freshman Riley Dodge, who had replaced Greg McElroy at Carroll High School in Southlake, Texas, but he was hurt and has since switched positions to wide receiver. Instead, the only other freshman quarterback the Tide saw was Tyler Wilson, who completed 4 of 6 passes for 31 yards, but came into the game with Arkansas down 35-7.
Strangely enough, he did nearly the exact same thing the year before, going 4-of-7 for 27 yards with a touchdown and an interception during the Razorbacks' 49-14 loss before receiving a medical hardship to make him a redshirt freshman.
The last redshirt freshman to start against Alabama was LSU's Jarrett Lee in 2008, when he completed 13 of 34 passes for 181 yards, with one touchdown and four interceptions, the last of which came in overtime and the Tigers lost 27-21.
The last true freshman to start against the Tide was also the only one to pull off a win against Saban at Alabama, even though his longest completion was for 19 yards and had no touchdown passes. Wesley Carroll came into the game with a streak of 137 consecutive attempts without an interception, surpassing Wayne Madkin's school record of 122 (2000-01), and was one shy of tying the NCAA record for consecutive passes by a freshman without an interception to open his career.
He didn't get it. Rashad Johnson picked off the first attempt, but with five key Alabama players suspended due to the textbook disbursement scandal the Tide lost to Sylvester Croom for the second straight year, 17-12. Carroll's final numbers were 9-of-21 for 100 yards. He's since transferred to Florida International.
The Tide faced three other freshmen quarterbacks in 2007:
Backup Adam Hearns of Western Carolina, who later switched positions to defensive back, was 5-of-7 for 81 yards.
Houston's Case Keenum split time with starter Blake Joseph and completed 11 of 17 passes for 132 yards with two interceptions and one touchdown. The Tide won 30-24.
Colorado quarterback Cody Hawkins was 24-of-39 for 322 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. The Buffalos lost 30-24 in the Independence Bowl.
Combined, the freshmen completed 85 of 171 attempts for 1,060 yards, with eight touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
That's why Paterno is going to take as much pressure off Bolden as possible, because he'll probably be getting plenty of it both from the Crimson Tide and 101,821 screaming fans. In addition to simplifying the playbook Alabama believes the Nittany Lions might move him around more with rollouts and bootlegs so he isn't such a target.
"He's a little more athletic than what he's shown," junior linebacker Jerrell Harris said.
Two factors regarding Alabama's defense are junior end Marcell Dareus having to sit one more game due to a suspension and the revamped secondary, which remains a work in progress and wasn't overly tested by San Jose State during last week's 48-3 win. Sophomore safety Robert Lester made the Tide's first interception of the season, but Saban admitted that there were some miscues the Spartans couldn't take advantage of.
"That is an area that it would help if we can make a significant improvement in this week," Saban said.
However, if Penn State can't get running game going after struggling to accumulate 132 yards on 29 carries against the Penguins, the Nittany Lions may have no choice but to put the game in Bolden's hands, especially if behind. Alabama hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 35 games (Ole Miss' BenJarvus Green-Ellis, 131, 2007).
That's exactly what Paterno wants to avoid.
"Bolden isn't going to beat Alabama by himself," the coach said. "Bolden's gotta go down there and just do the job that he can do. Be careful with the football, don't do stupid things. Understand we're going to have a lot of adversity and go from one play to the next one. See what we can get done, play after play. I mean, it's a football game. It's not the Crusades."