Penn State Football: The 10 All-Time Best QBs in Nittany Lions History
Penn State is commonly referred to as Linebacker U. The football program has been considered a linebacker factory over the course of the program's history, and for good reason. But for all of the great players who have played at Penn State over the years, quarterback has rarely been one of the stronger positions before the arrival of Bill O'Brien as head coach.
O'Brien looks to be turning a corner with production at quarterback, and the future looks bright for any quarterback who may have a shot at playing in O'Brien's quarterback-friendly offense. Whether or not we one day include a name like Tyler Ferguson or Christian Hackenberg in a ranking of the top 10 quarterbacks in Penn State history will be determined years from now.
For now, let's take a look through some of the best to play quarterback at Penn State to date and see how far the position has come.
From left to right: Shorty Miller, Glenn Killinger, Richie Lucas. Photos: National Football Foundation
This power ranking looks more at the modern era of the quarterback, but it is worth noting some of the greats to have played quarterback at Penn State. Before the position evolved to what it is viewed as today, there were three players who helped define the position in their eras.
Richie "Riverboat Richie" Lucas: A three-year starter for Rip Engle, Richie Lucas led Penn State to a 21-8-1 record, highlighted by a 7-0 win over Paul Bear Bryant's Alabama in the first Liberty Bowl (played in Philadelphia). Lucas led the Nittany Lions in rushing in 1959 while passing for 913 yards and five touchdowns. Lucas did more than pass and run though. Lucas also averaged 34.0 yards per punt and returned five interceptions for 114 yards in 1959. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to LSU's Billy Cannon and was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
Glenn Killinger: Killinger led Penn State to undefeated seasons in 1920 and 1921 (15-0-4 overall) and was part of one of the most potent backfields in the east with Harry Wilson. Killinger was a Walter Camp All-American, and captain of the football and basketball teams at Penn State. Killinger was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
Shorty Miller: Standing just 5'5" tall, Shorty Miller helped lead Penn State to the first of two undefeated seasons in program history. Though Penn State's defense allowed just 15 points in the entire 1911 season, Miller led a viable offense. Nicknamed the "Meteoric Midget," Miller dazzled on the football field, running the football and getting by tacklers using his smaller size to his advantage. He missed just one game in his four-year career at Penn State, and the Nittany Lions went 23-8-2 during Miller's time. He was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1974.
10. Zack Mills
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Zack Mills holds the Penn State passing record for most career passing yards, with 7,212. Mills also holds the school records for most career pass attempts (1,082) and most passing yards in a game (399 yards vs. Iowa in 2002).
Many of the passing records currently held by Mills are a result of having the most playing time by a quarterback at Penn State. Mills was one of the youngest quarterbacks in program history to take over a starting role at quarterback, and he did so when Penn State football had hit a low point in terms of wins and losses.
When Mills was the quarterback at Penn State, the Nittany Lions made just one bowl trip and finished ineligible for bowl play in the other three years. Mills opened up the Penn State offense at times but his numbers show he was prone to mistakes as well, ending his college career with 41 touchdown passes and 39 interceptions.
Mills also added 11 touchdown runs and 584 rushing yards.
Stats via College Football Reference.
9. Matt McGloin
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Matt McGloin wrapped up his Penn State career with a total of 6,390 career passing yards. His 3,271 passing yards in 2012 set a new Penn State single-season passing record and his 24 touchdown passes tied the single-season school record (Daryll Clark, 2009).
McGloin etched his place among all-time Penn State quarterbacks with a solid, rejuvenating 2012 season. After sharing playing time in 2010 and 2011, McGloin took on the role of full-time quarterback once Bill O'Brien took over the program. Under the new offensive system, McGloin thrived for the most part. His decision-making improved with a new sense of confidence, and he showed a willingness to tuck the football and run for a few yards when needed.
McGloin may not have been the most skilled quarterback on this list, but he is certainly deserving of a spot.
8. Tony Sacca
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Tony Sacca was one of the top high school quarterbacks when he arrived at Penn State, and he would end his collegiate career second on Penn State's all-time passing list with 5,869 passing yards.
Sacca was Penn State's starting quarterback in 1990 and 1991, and he threw 31 touchdown passes and was intercepted 14 times. At the time, Sacca held the school record for most passing yards in a single season when he passed for 2,488 yards in 1991. That mark has since been passed by four different players a total of five different times.
Sacca remains third on the school's all-time passing list, with Matt McGloin passing him for second on the list in 2012.
7. John Shaffer
John Shaffer. Photo: Penn State Athletics
John Shaffer may be the classic example of how simply managing an offense can lead to great things. Shaffer certainly does not have the passing numbers that would lead him to be linked to a discussion of best quarterback of all time at most schools.
Shaffer had more career interceptions (24) than touchdown passes (18), but he earns a spot in Penn State quarterback history for his efforts in the 1986 season.
Shaffer helped lead Penn State to a national championship during the 1986 season, passing for nine touchdowns and 1,510 yards but throwing just four interceptions. Shaffer completed 55.9 percent of his passes as Penn State completed a 12-0 season capped by a Fiesta Bowl victory over top-ranked Miami for the national championship.
Penn State also went 11-1 with Shaffer as the starting quarterback in 1985, losing to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl for the national championship.
Shaffer was not the most skilled quarterback, but he proved to be a winner when he was on the field.
6. Daryll Clark
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Daryll Clark was a two-year starting quarterback at Penn State, following in the foot steps of Michael Robinson as the leader of Penn State's offense. Over those two seasons Clark climbed the Penn State passing leaderboard and ended his college career with 5,742 career passing yards and a school record 43 passing touchdowns.
One of the criticisms of Clark was that he could not win a big game, but the numbers ultimately prove otherwise. Penn State was 4-2 against Top 25 teams when Clark was the starting quarterback. Clark's finest moment came in the 2010 Capital One Bowl on a muddy field against LSU when he drove the offense down field for a game-winning field goal late in the fourth quarter.
Clark's career touchdown record was broken last season by Matt McGloin.
5. John Hufnagel
Hufnagel was the starting quarterback for Penn State in 1971 and 1972, and he saw playing time in 1970 as well. With Hufnagel leading the offense, Penn State went 11-1 in 1971 and 10-2 in 1972. Hufnagel passed for 2,039 yards, 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions in the 1972 season, which ended with a 14-0 loss to No. 2 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
Hufnagel may be overshadowed by some legendary teammates (he played with Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris in the backfield) but his efficient style of play helped ensure Penn State's offense would be difficult to stop consistently.
Hufnagel's career average for yards per attempt of 8.69 remains a school record. Many of his other passing marks have since been eclipsed as the game has evolved, but in 1972 Hufnagel set a new school mark for most 200-yard passing games in a single season, throwing for over 200 yards five times. No other Penn State quarterback to that point in school history had passed for 200 yards more than once.
4. Chuck Fusina
Chuck Fusina was a starter for three seasons at Penn State, with the Nittany Lions amassing a 22-2 record over his final two seasons. These were two of Joe Paterno's best teams but neither would win a national championship.
Fusina and Penn State were a home upset against Kentucky away from playing for a national title in 1977. They would play for the title the following season but came up short against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, with the Crimson Tide coming up big on a goal-line stand.
When Fusina finished his collegiate career he left Penn State as the school's all-time leading passer with 5,382 career passing yards and 37 touchdowns. Fusina's best season was his junior season in 1977, when he passed for a career-high 2,221 yards, averaging 9.0 yards per attempt and passing for 15 touchdowns with a passer rating of 146.4.
3. Michael Robinson
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Michael Robinson may be one of the most important players in Penn State's more recent history. Robinson played multiple positions most of his Penn State career while Zack Mills was seeing more time under center. Robinson was trying to find his spot on the team his first few seasons, but his senior season would prove that he was best fit to be Penn State's quarterback.
Robinson quarterbacked the 2005 Nittany Lions and was a key player in helping the program dig out from a rough stretch of mediocrity.
With a trio of freshman receivers stepping in to contribute right away for Penn State's offense, Robinson would pass for 2,350 yards and 17 touchdowns while adding 806 rushing yards and another 11 rushing touchdowns.
Robinson led Penn State to four wins over Top 25 competition that season, highlighted by a home victory against No. 6 Ohio State and capped with a triple-overtime victory against ACC champion Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
Robinson finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2005 and was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
Robinson has since gone on to the NFL and found his place in the league as a Pro Bowl running back during separate stints with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.
2. Todd Blackledge
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Todd Blackledge was the quarterback for Penn State's first national championship team in 1982. That season, Blackledge passed for 2,218 yards, 22 touchdowns and was intercepted 14 times. On the way to leading Penn State to a Sugar Bowl and national championship victory over Georgia, Blackledge earned the Davey O'Brien Award for that season as the nation's top passer. He finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting that season.
Having started for Penn State for three seasons, Blackledge accumulated a career record of 31-5. Blackledge finished his career with 4,812 passing yards, 41 touchdowns and 41 interceptions.
Blackledge would go on to the NFL, being drafted ahead of Pitt's Dan Marino in the 1983 NFL draft with the seventh overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs.
1. Kerry Collins
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Kerry Collins is at the top of the class when discussing Penn State quarterbacks.
His place on top of the all-time quarterback rankings at Penn State is locked in, with Todd Blackledge the obvious No. 2, before debates begin about where different players should be ranked. Collins left Penn State as the most polished quarterback in school history, and he would go on to have the most successful NFL career by a Nittany Lion quarterback.
To this day Collins holds Penn State passing records for most passing yards by a junior (352 yards vs Michigan State, 1993), consecutive completions in a single game (14 vs. Minnesota, 1994), highest completion percentage in a season (66.7, 1994) and career (56.3), and most yards per attempt in a season (10.15, 1994).
In addition, Collins also holds the school record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass in a single season (11, 1994) and career (14). His season pass efficiency rating of 172.86 in 1994 also remains a school record.
Collins led Penn State to a 12-0 record in the 1994 season, winning the first Big Ten championship in the school's second year in the conference and winning the first Rose Bowl in school history.
Though Penn State did not win a national championship in the eyes of the polls, Collins led one of Penn State's top offensive units in school history—a unit that is still highly regarded as one of the best in college football history to this day. Collins passed for 21 touchdowns and was intercepted just seven times in 1994, a season that saw he and a number of other starters pulled early in games after blowing away the competition.
In a season of many great accomplishments and feats, Collins saw his finest moment come against Illinois, when he led The Drive to rally Penn State against upset-minded Illinois. After digging a shocking 21-0 deficit on the road, Collins and Penn State battled back and needed a 96-yard drive late in the game to avoid their first loss of the season with a possible national championship still on the line. Collins was precise and confident in leading the Nittany Lions downfield in the most clutch of moments of the season.
The awards piled up for Collins in 1994. He was awarded multiple quarterback awards (College Quarterback of the Year, Sammy Baugh Award, Davey O'Brien Award) and was named the Maxwell Award winner in addition to being named a consensus All-American.
After his time at Penn State, Collins would be drafted with the fifth overall draft pick of the 1995 NFL draft by the expansion Carolina Panthers. The Panthers traded down from No. 1 overall with the Cincinnati Bengals, who selected his teammate Ki-Jana Carter.
Collins would go on to lead the Panthers to an NFC Championship Game appearance in the franchise's second year of existence, and he would later take the New York Giants to a Super Bowl appearance.
Collins was selected for two Pro Bowls, in 1996 and 2008.