On Friday, Sept. 2, 2016, Trace McSorley walked around Penn State’s campus with a certain feeling in his gut.
It wasn’t an overwhelming sensation. Nothing that engulfed his psyche. But one day away from making his first career start for the Nittany Lions, McSorley was filled with anticipation.
“I had jitters and butterflies,” McSorley said.
That anticipation and excitement doesn’t really go away. With a new season on the horizon, that’s understood — but any uncertainty over what he’s able to accomplish was quelled last season.
McSorley’s ready to kick off 2017 — and it starts with a favorable matchup against Akron.
“This is not the Penn State team we played three years ago,” Zips coach Terry Bowden said Wednesday at his weekly press conference, referencing an uneasy 21-3 Nittany Lion win in 2014. “We know what we’re dealing with. It’s a Big Ten champion.”
A conference champion led by one of the best deep-ball throwers in the country.
McSorley tied for second nationally with 24 completions of 40 yards or more in 2016. Indiana’s Richard Lagow is the only other Big Ten passer to have more than eight.
The Penn State redshirt junior is also the only Big Ten quarterback to have double-digit 50-yard passing plays.
How does that factor in against the Zips? Well, Akron’s pass defense wasn’t awful in 2016. The Zips ranked 71st in pass defense, allowing 236.0 yards through the air per game.
But those surface numbers don’t tell the whole story.
In 12 games last season, the Zips faced only three teams — VMI, Marshall and Toledo — that completed more than 23 passes against them. In those three games combined, the Zips allowed 1,078 yards, nine touchdowns and 12.25 yards per completion.
Add in the fact that Akron allowed 24 passes of 30 yards or more in 2016 — 102nd-worst in the country — and McSorley should be in for a field day.
“He’s a tough cover, I can tell you that,” Penn State safeties coach Tim Banks said. “He has what you call ‘it,’ in my opinion. He’s just one of those guys. ... I’m glad we only have to face him in practice. He’s definitely a handful.”
Really, the entire Penn State offense will be a handful for Akron.
The Nittany Lions are 31-point favorites, according to Bovada Sportsbook, for a reason. Bowden called Saquon Barkley “probably the best all-around back in the country,” and an improved offensive line will only give the Zips more headaches.
But to the opposing coach, it really comes down to that backfield tandem.
“When your quarterback and tailback are Heisman candidates and the ball is gonna be in their hands a lot, they can beat you themselves,” Bowden acknowledged.
Which brings up the strategy so many teams employed against Penn State in 2016: Force McSorley to carry the offense.
“If you had to choose between Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said Tuesday, “I think most people are going to say they are going to try to eliminate Saquon Barkley as much as they can and make Trace beat you.”
Ask Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin how that went for them.
The Hoosiers, Spartans and Badgers keyed in on Barkley last season, limiting him to 155 total rushing yards on 64 carries (2.42 yards per tote). But in those games, McSorley went off — throwing for 1,092 yards and 10 touchdowns.
If Akron’s plan is to focus on Barkley, McSorley should have no problem slicing up the Zips.
Plus, McSorley has been itching to get back out on the field, working through fall camp to put that final interception at the Rose Bowl behind him.
“We understand as a team what the standard is we want to work toward,” the quarterback said.
And McSorley’s prepared to set it against Akron.