Take away that one interception, that one ill-advised throw returned for a touchdown to the delight of a raucous Big House and essentially broke Penn State’s back last week, and one thing becomes somewhat clear about Tommy Stevens.
Coming off the bench, he showed signs of being an effective quarterback. Without that interception, he completed all three of his passes, for 35 yards. He wound up being Penn State’s leading rusher, as well, going for 52 yards on 10 carries, including the Nittany Lions’ only touchdown.
Here are some facts about Trace McSorley: He’s probably going to finish his Penn State career as statistically the best quarterback in program history, and during his career with the Nittany Lions, he has been a relentless winner. Since he arrived on campus at Penn State, 38 quarterbacks earned an opportunity to start a New Year’s Six bowl game; just eight started two or more. McSorley is one of them.
When No. 20 Penn State hosts Wisconsin on Saturday at Beaver Stadium, all signs point to McSorley getting his 37th consecutive start for the Nittany Lions. With McSorley’s injured right knee, among other unnamed maladies, slowing him to his career-worst performance last week at Michigan, head coach James Franklin has had some questions to answer about Penn State’s future plans at quarterback, especially when balanced against its present.
Namely, would this be a good time to get Stevens more time under center with the starting offense, to prepare him for the starting job in 2019?
Franklin tried to squash the possibility Tuesday, saying Stevens’ playing time mostly would come the way it has so far this season: In the so-called “Lion” role, either as a second quarterback on the field, or as a running back, receiver or tight end.
“We’ll probably continue to approach it that way, which is a way to get him some experience, but also, allow Trace to get in a rhythm and for our offense to get in a rhythm, which is important,” Franklin said.
Getting reps in games, even a few, might seem overrated to many. Consistent practice reps help develop quarterbacks just as much as backup reps in a blowout game, and Stevens said his increased playing time under center against Iowa and Michigan — hasn’t changed much about how he views himself as a potential starting quarterback next year.
“I’m not saying that it has changed the way I feel about myself as a quarterback,” Stevens said. “I’ve felt this way about myself for a long time. I’m not trying to sound arrogant by any stretch of the imagination. But I am very confident in myself to play the position, and I know my teammates feel the same way.
“As far as the game reps, that’s obviously something I want to continue to do. I want game reps at quarterback. That said, those opportunities are limited, so I have to make the most of them.”
Limited. But down the stretch, not necessarily unavailable.
Under the intense pressure of the Michigan defense last week, McSorley struggled, and Franklin admitted he regretted not taking him out of the game earlier. If McSorley’s knee continues to be an issue this weekend, it’s likely Franklin will consider what happened in Ann Arbor and make a change earlier.
If he doesn’t, or if McSorley is healthy enough to go the distance against Wisconsin, the rest of the schedule bodes well for more reps for Stevens anyway.
Over the last two seasons, Stevens has seen his most extensive action at quarterback in games against Penn State’s final two regular-season opponents, Rutgers and Maryland. Against them in his career, he has rushed 22 times for 211 yards, thrown seven passes and accounted for five touchdowns.
“It’s the position that I want to play,” Stevens said. Like I’ve said in the past, I’m obviously willing to do whatever is best for the team, whatever would be the best way to help. But I don’t want that to be mistaken: I do want to play quarterback. I didn’t come to Penn State to be the Lion, if that makes sense.”
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