By: Thomas Frank Carr
The moment came in the 2nd quarter vs Indiana.
With 13:30 left in the first half, Trace McSorley took a shotgun snap, surveyed the field, and then uncorked a deep ball to Mike Gesicki down the sideline. Indiana defensive back Andre Brown Jr was in good position and cut Gesicki off from getting to the ball, setting up 3rd and 7.
What wasn’t shown on the broadcast angle of TV was that Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead had placed two of his largest receivers, Saeed Blacknall and Irv Charles, in front of Brandon Polk. The diminutive receiver trotted off the line before breaking hard to the sideline underneath his fellow receivers into the flat. The play worked like a dream and Polk was open with no Indiana defenders within five yards.
Unfortunately, McSorley had already looked away from that side of the field in favor of Gesicki and a big shot down the field. The Nittany Lions punted on that drive and were held scoreless in the 2nd quarter. McSorley would end up going 3-8 for 20 yards and an interception during that quarter.
That quarter underlines the point that makes all Penn State fans nervous; Saquon Barkley is not the engine that drives this offense, it’s Trace McSorley.
This is why it’s so critical that Trace McSorley progress not only as a passer, but as a decision maker. It’s also why the Penn State coaching staff has been quick to defend their starting quarterback as Head Coach James Franklin did this week during his weekly press conference,
“The first five games [last year], our record was 3-2. Right now our record is 5-0. I think the most important stat that you have as a quarterback is wins and losses, and he’s 5-0 compared to 3-2. So I think to me the discussion should end right there.”
Yet it doesn’t. Bad quarterbacks win games with overwhelming talent around them. Is that the case with McSorley? No, according to Franklin,
“I will go further. Completion percentage: first five games from last year was 58 percent and he’s at 65 percent this year. If you want to take the last five games of the year last year he was 61 percent. He’s 65 right now in the first five. Touchdown to interception ratio: last year in the first five games he had six touchdowns and three interceptions. Right now he has 12 and four.I don’t think it’s even close. In every category that you can look at, if you compare him to the last five, he’s pretty much on par. You can make an argument better in some categories. I think he’s pretty much better in every metric possible.”
The reality is that he’s right. The issue is not McSorley per se, it’s the scheme itself. James Franklin points to this on a nearly weekly basis,
“I know everybody would love for us just to line up and smash it down people’s throats, but that’s not how we’re built. That’s not how we’re designed. When the opportunity is there to run the ball, we run the ball effectively.”
The Penn State offense is built to take advantage of whatever the defense does. If they take away the running back, the quarterback will keep the ball, if they take both of those options away, the offense can pass the ball down the field or on option passes to the sideline. This is the dangerous game that Penn State is playing. They are allowing the defense to dictate that best player in the country, Saquon Barkley, will not touch the ball.
If you don’t think McSorley is the key to the Penn State offense, here are some of his responsibilities before and after the snap,
“It kind depends on the play being called. Some of them there are pre snap options based on what I see and them some of them are seeing what you see pre snap and then confirming them post-snap.”
Franklin praised McSorley as a decision maker. So which is more difficult, pre or post snap decisions?
“I’d say there’s emphasis on both, get the right pre-snap read, make the decision if there is one to be made, and then post-snap it’s confirming. I guess post-snap is something you have to focus on. Some teams disguise one thing pre-snap and do something completely different post snap…There’s definitely a level of importance to both, even in our offense,” McSorley said during a teleconference this week.
Many comparisons have been made by fans and media of this team to the 1994 team. There is one major difference. Ki-Jana Carter was going to get X number of touches a game, no matter how many eight or nine man boxes they saw. That is not the case with PSU 2017. While it make more logical sense to not run ‘dead plays’, it takes the ball out of the hands of your best weapon.
So it’s on Trace McSorley to make the best decision possible on every play, something that Franklin says is his strength,
“That’s been kind of his deal from the beginning. I tell you what, its impressive sitting in the quarterback meetings. I mean, he’s got the stuff down, he really does. What we need Trace to do is make adjustments with the protection, or make some adjustments in the run game, but mostly in the protections.”
It’s not just before the snap though, McSorley has to do a good job after the snap too,
“It’s Trace going through his progressions. It’s making great decisions with the ball. Knowing when to hang in the pocket and knowing when to take off and run. All those types of things, and really, over the last year and a half, he’s been really good.”
Against Indiana, the Nittany Lions inexperienced line was overwhelmed with blitzes from all angles. Interestingly, the second quarter in particular has been unforgiving to the Virginia native against Division 1 teams.
TRACE MCSOLEY 2ND QUARTER STATS
It’s at halftime that McSorley seems to be able to gather himself and come back striking,
“We just needed to handle their front movments and gash them in the passing game and have our runs in the run game. We came into the 2nd half knowing that if you want to man our guys up outside and bring pressures, we like our guys outside,” McSorley said after the Lions 45-14 win over the Hoosiers.
That’s exactly what the offense did in the second half. Trace McSorley went 12-17 for 200 yards and two touchdowns and Penn State cruised to another three score win.
The reality is that Saquon Barkley is going to be phenomenal and make plays that drop your jaw. You know what you’re getting from him every week. It’s also true that Trace McSorley won’t be a perfect. The position of quarterback is too hard for anyone to execute flawlessly every play. Sometimes Brandon Polk will be open in the flat and sometimes he’ll make the wrong read on an RPO.
What he cannot do is go through quarter long slumps against elite teams and expect to give his team a chance to win. Too much of the offense and the team’s hopes ride on his shoulders.