Without Saquon Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki and a senior-laden defense, the preseason narrative surrounding Penn State was obvious: the Nittany Lions will go as far as Trace McSorley will take them. Fair or not, Penn State’s season was on the fifth-year senior’s shoulders before it even started.
And now seven weeks in, that worries James Franklin. The head coach is concerned that McSorley is “carrying too much of the load on offense.”
“That’s something that we need to do a better job of. We need more players to have a bigger impact on the game on offense,” Franklin said at his Tuesday press conference. “That’s probably my biggest concern.” And it’s an understandable one, too.
Put lightly, Penn State’s passing attack has not clicked under first-year offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne. McSorley’s 53.9 completion percentage is by far the worst of his career, ranking 103rd in the country, and the Fiesta Bowl MVP has yet to throw for 300 yards in a game. That’s not all on McSorley. Not even close. Nittany Lion pass-catchers have committed a conference-leading 22 drops, and younger receivers running broken or incomplete routes have given McSorley cause for hesitation to pull the trigger in the pocket.
Meanwhile, the quarterback’s rushing numbers have drastically increased. McSorley’s 554 rushing yards through seven games — 189 more than he had in 14 games in 2016 — rank fifth among quarterbacks nationwide and eighth among all players in the Big Ten. Before this season, McSorley had never eclipsed 90 rushing yards in a game; he’s done that three times in Penn State’s last four contests. And his 23 runs of 10 yards or more is 10th in college football, on par with Heisman Trophy darkhorse and Clemson bell cow back Travis Etienne.
McSorley’s 98 rushing attempts are seventh-most in the Big Ten. Through seven games in 2017 and 2016, the quarterback tallied 83 and 86 rushes, respectively. McSorley has had 12 carries or more in five of seven this year. Over the last two seasons combined, he’s hit that 12-carry benchmark 10 times.
Some of McSorley’s runs have been designed draws, like the 23-yard, third-quarter dash against Ohio State. But, as Franklin pointed out, McSorley is doing most of his damage on the ground in two areas: Scrambling or on Penn State’s base zone read.
“So it’s not as if we go into the game saying, ‘Trace is going to run the ball this many times.’ … Our offense doesn’t run like that,” Franklin said. “We don’t have a whole lot of straight-call runs in our offense.”
It’s just a matter of McSorley taking what the defense gives him. Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana played a lot of man coverage. If they’re not using a linebacker to spy on McSorley, he’s going to take off — and even if they are, he’s probably faster than the ‘backer, anyway.
Franklin would like to see the passing game improve, so that McSorley doesn’t have to scramble out of the pocket and take hits. But the captain doesn’t mind, and it doesn’t seem like that will change, either.
“I want to do whatever I need to do to help our team win,” McSorley said Tuesday. “If that’s carrying the ball however many times, throwing it, whatever it might be. To me, I really haven’t felt like there’s been a big burden or felt like I’m shouldering too much of the load or whatever Coach was saying.
“I’m going to have the same mindset, just moving on to do whatever the coaches ask of me, whatever I can do to try and help us win.”