There hit a point in Penn State’s 42-7 loss to Michigan last week that Nittany Lions coach James Franklin needed to finally make the difficult call to pull Trace McSorley from the game.
The star quarterback, clearly hobbled by an apparent knee injury he suffered against Iowa the week before, simply couldn’t effectively run Penn State’s option offense on an every-down basis. Once junior Tommy Stevens replaced him in the third quarter, however, Michigan had already built a 21-0 lead.
“It’s hard taking Trace McSorely off the field,” Franklin said after the game. “… That’s probably the biggest thing, is our trust and our belief in him. But obviously, after the fact, we should have made a change earlier.”
That leaves everyone to wonder what the Nittany Lions’ quarterback position could look like when they host the University of Wisconsin on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
There isn’t much doubt that McSorley, who ultimately rotated with Stevens in the second half at Michigan, will suit up against the Badgers. How healthy and effective he can be a week later, however, remains unclear.
“You prepare for him and you prepare for him to play his best,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “If he’s not able to do that, then you take a deep breath after the game. He’s a competitor, so you know he’s going to do everything in his power to play and be the same guy. He’s not a guy that’s going to get in there and say, ‘You know what? I shouldn’t run this one or I shouldn’t do this.’
“He plays one way, and he’s done it his entire career, and that’s why he’s been very successful. You prepare for a guy like that to do everything you see on tape and more because that’s what he’s shown throughout his career.”
UW knows all too well what McSorley’s capable of, as he threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns in a comeback victory over the Badgers in the 2016 Big Ten Championship game.
Two years later, the senior now owns Penn State career records for passing yards (9,080), 300-yard passing games (10), 200-yard passing games (26), rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (27), passing touchdowns (71), total offense (10,590), touchdowns responsible for (98) and passing efficiency (146.3).
McSorley’s passing numbers this season – 52 percent completion percentage, 1,711 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions – aren’t on par with his standards over the past two years, but he’s already gained a career-high 611 rushing yards.
He’s thrived in Penn State’s read-option offense for three seasons, but the execution of that requires him to be in good health.
“He’s been the guy for a long time,” UW inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “We’ve played against him before. He can do a lot for a team and can really make a big play happen at any time, so we’ll have to be ready. … We’re definitely prepared for him to go at full-go.”
Nelson, Harrell could return this week
Leonhard said safety Scott Nelson (hamstring) and cornerback Deron Harrell (ankle) could return this week, as the two have participated in team drills for the first time since being injured.
Nelson’s been out since UW’s loss at Michigan on Oct. 13, while Harrell suffered his injury in practice leading up to the Badgers’ game at Northwestern two weeks later.