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Penn State football: Debating whether Trace McSorley is the Nittany Lions’ best-ever QB

This time last year, the talk around State College, Pa., was Saquon Barkley and whether he was the greatest running back in Penn State history. Now, his former backfield mate is getting the same treatment.

With Trace McSorley’s career coming to a close in the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky on Jan. 1, the question remains: Where does McSorley fit in the Penn State pecking order? How does he stack up to Kerry Collins, Todd Blackledge and more? Is he the No. 1 quarterback Happy Valley has ever seen?

The Centre Daily Times’ two resident Penn State experts weighed in on the matter. Here’s what they said.

John McGonigal: Trace McSorley is No. 1

Let’s get this out of the way from the get-go: There’s a reason why there are two pages of Penn State’s weekly game notes dedicated to McSorley. He owns pretty much every record in the book.

His 9,653 passing yards and 75 passing touchdowns are way ahead of Christian Hackenberg’s numbers at No. 2. McSorley’s 104 touchdowns responsible for are 39 more than the second guy, Daryll Clark. His 2016 and 2017 campaigns rank first and second, respectively, on the single-season charts for passing yards and touchdowns. And, of course, McSorley is the all-time winningest signal-caller in Nittany Lion history.

McSorley’s intangibles are critical to his legacy — his leadership and his willingness to play through injury, the way he runs angry at the world and how he’s invigorated a fan base over three years. But his importance to Penn State is easily measured: A Big Ten crown, a Fiesta Bowl triumph and 29 more wins in a time when winning big wasn’t the norm in Happy Valley.

Bill O’Brien helped keep the program afloat with eight and seven wins in 2012 and 2013, respectively, while dealing with NCAA sanctions. Then James Franklin managed seven wins in each of his first two years on campus. It was impressive to stay above .500 during those challenging years, but the Nittany Lions were treading water.

Meanwhile, look at Chuck Fusina. The Maxwell Award winner and Heisman Trophy runner-up took the reins in 1976 and directed Penn State to back-to-back 11-win seasons in ’77 and ’78. But take a peek at what came before him. From 1971-75, the Nittany Lions won 52 of their 60 games. Penn State was a juggernaut, and Fusina, followed by Blackledge, rode that wave.

McSorley was one of a few people to bring Penn State back to the table of college football elites. His often overlooked, late-game heroics against Minnesota helped the Nittany Lions turn the corner. And once he clicked in Joe Moorhead’s offense, there was no turning back.

Sure, McSorley had the help of Saquon Barkley, a generational running back and pass-catcher. But it was No. 9 who clinched the Big Ten East with 376 passing yards and four touchdowns on just 17 completions when Barkley was hurt. It was the kid from Ashburn, Va., who threw for a record 384 yards en route to upending Wisconsin and earning MVP honors at the Big Ten Championship game. And it was McSorley’s 12-for-12 showing on third down last year in the desert that allowed Penn State to hold off Washington for its first BCS/New Year’s Six win in a decade.

Those who believe 2018 might stain or lessen McSorley’s legacy need a reality check. Yes, the Nittany Lions’ 9-3 season was seen as a disappointment to some. But imagine if Penn State didn’t have McSorley this year. Imagine not having his 175 rushing yards against Ohio State. And imagine if the Nittany Lions called a quarterback run or pass on fourth-and-5, how that might have added to McSorley’s lore.

Bottom line, McSorley did everything he could for Penn State. He threw for more yards and accounted for more touchdowns than anyone in the program’s 131-year history. He won more games than any quarterback and, in doing so, brought a former powerhouse back to the national title conversation.

If that’s not enough to earn the No. 1 spot in Penn State history, what is?

Josh Moyer: He’s an all-time great, not the all-time great

McSorley belongs on every Penn State top-5 all-time QB list. That should be beyond debate by now. He’s tough, he’s talented, and he’s a winner. But No. 1? The best-ever? I’m going to go ahead and blow the whistle on recency bias.

First of all, spare me your long list of Penn State career passing records. Outside of most wins, when comparing quarterbacks from different eras, those stats are overrated. Let me explain: Who would you say had the better season — Stanford’s Jim Plunkett in 1970 (19 TDs, 19 INTs) or Penn State’s Anthony Morelli in 2007 (19 TDs, 10 INTs)? If you answered Morelli, you proved my point. Plunkett’s numbers were extraordinary for his time period, and he won the Heisman that season. Morelli … did not.

To me, the “best” is mostly about talent and winning. Not purely yards or touchdowns. (If that was the case, we’d have Evan Royster ranked ahead of Saquon Barkley.) We have to judge each QB not by today’s standards but by how he was looked at while he played. No one in his right mind would rate Clayton Thorson over Otto Graham, or Shea Patterson over Rick Leach. And I don’t think it’s correct to rate McSorley over Collins. Or probably Blackledge and Fusina.

Let me explain. First of all, let’s talk about winning. McSorley has 31 wins, bettering Blackledge’s official career mark by two games — but, thanks to today’s extended schedule, McSorley had more opportunities to get to that total. In fact, if you include not just starts but games where the QB made an impact, Blackledge has a 31-5 career record. Penn State lists Fusina with 27 wins as a starter, but numerous other outlets point to a 29-3 career record.

Regardless of what games constitute wins, McSorley’s career winning percentage is still behind those two. Plus, Fusina led his team to back-to-back one-loss seasons, Blackledge won a national title, and Collins led his team to a perfect 12-0 record. McSorley may have the numbers, but he can’t top that.

Let’s talk about talent. This is a little trickier because, in a lot of ways, it’s all about the eye test. You could say, “Well, if McSorley had Collins’ supporting cast, he would’ve gone undefeated, too.” He may have; it’s hard to refute the maybes. But, again, I think the best way is to remove opinion and lean on the facts to see how each player was viewed in his era.

Fusina won the Maxwell in 1978 and was a Heisman runner-up. Some argued he was the best player in the nation. Collins won the Maxwell in 1994, the Davey O’Brien Award (1994), the Sammy Baugh Trophy (1994) and was named the Big Ten MVP (1994). He was also fourth in the Heisman voting. He, too, was widely regarded as the nation’s best — which is why he went No. 5 overall in the NFL draft. And Blackledge won the Davey O’Brien Award in 1982 while earning the second-most Heisman votes by a QB, behind only Stanford’s John Elway.

McSorley was always seen as one of the best, but never the best. He’ll likely never enter the College Football Hall of Fame, unlike Collins. He never placed in the Heisman voting, unlike the three QBs mentioned above. And he never won a national award. Heck, he never even earned first-team all-conference honors.

Quarterbacks are asked to do more these days and, so if you want to argue that McSorley was more valuable to his team, I wouldn’t refute that. I just don’t think, based on the facts, that he was better. But he helped turn this program around, and he should still be remembered 50 years from now when we’re debating the program’s best-ever quarterbacks.

He’s undoubtedly in the conversation, and he’s one of the Penn State greats. He’s just not No. 1.

Citrus Bowl

No. 14 Kentucky vs. No. 12 Penn State

When: 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 1

Where: Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

TV: ABC-36

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