Saquon Barkley razzled, dazzled and shook the Georgia State defense en route to his 85-yard touchdown reception a few weeks ago. It’s a highlight made for the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December, that’s for sure.
Funny thing is, though, Barkley wasn’t the first option on that play. He wasn’t even the second look. No, the checkdown to Barkley was the third read.
Thanks to Trace McSorley’s patience and enhanced feel for the Penn State offense on that play — and countless others throughout 2017 — the Nittany Lions’ offense has clicked, if not yet exploded.
“I think it’s not forcing things and taking what the defense is giving me, doing a lot better job of reading defenses,” McSorley said Wednesday, of his biggest improvement from 2016. “Where I was at this point last year, and even where I was toward the end of the year, I felt like I was pre-determining things.
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“Fortunately for us, they were there and we were able to make the play. But now, I feel like I’m doing a better job of going through my progressions and finding the open guy. I’m getting to that third progression if the first two aren’t there.”
It’s been apparent in his statistics, too.
Through five games so far this season, McSorley has completed 65.6 percent of his passes (105 of 160) while throwing for 1,352 yards and 12 touchdowns. In the same opening span in 2016, the quarterback’s numbers look like this: 58.9 completion percentage, 1,284 yards and six touchdown passes.
“If you compare it to the first five games of last year, he’s by far ahead,” coach James Franklin added. “I think he’s pretty much better in every metric possible.”
However, the deep ball hasn’t been there for McSorley. The quarterback has only eight passes of 30 yards or more through five games — and one of them was the 85-yard catch-and-run by Barkley. Meanwhile, through five games in 2016, McSorley had 14 such throws.
That disparity is largely a product of how defenses like Iowa have approached McSorley and the Penn State offense: Keep everything in front, and make the Nittany Lions sustain drives. McSorley’s response to that defensive look? “Take the plays that are there,” he said. “Take advantage of what they give us, even if it’s not the big deep shot. We have to put together drives and maintain it.”
That’s what McSorley has done.
The Nittany Lions have nine scoring drives that have lasted at least eight plays and 60 yards. In those series, McSorley has completed 78.9 percent of his passes (30 of 38) for 327 yards.
He picked apart the Hoosiers in the second half on Saturday, looking off receivers and identifying his man. The quarterback put on a clinic late at Kinnick Stadium and even fared well throughout the night — understanding what the Hawkeyes were doing defensively and taking a look at his wideouts downfield before deferring to a safe, yet effective dump off to Barkley. The back had 94 receiving yards on 12 catches against Iowa, and while he did most of the work, it was McSorley pulling the trigger and making the correct read.
“It’s Trace going through his progressions,” Franklin said. “It’s making great decisions with the ball. Knowing when to hang in the pocket and knowing when to take off and run. ... He’s been really good in those areas, and we want to continue to build on it.”
McSorley’s teammates aren’t surprised by his early season success, either. They’ve seen it come together first-hand in practice.
“It’s something he’s put a lot of work into,” safety Nick Scott said. “We emphasize disguising a lot, and I think that helps him dissect plays after the snap because we disguise so well. We’re definitely seeing him go through more progressions and maturing as a quarterback.”
McSorley doesn’t think his start to 2017 has been perfect by any means. The redshirt junior feels as though there have been deep shots missed, whether it was him and his receiver not connecting or the quarterback failing to recognize it open up.
So yeah, there’s still room for improvement.
But McSorley isn’t concerned that he hasn’t thrown as many 40, 50 or 60-yard bombs as he did a season ago. He refuses to chuck it downfield and pray his guy comes up with it.
McSorley is going to take what the defense gives him. He’s had success going through his progressions and making the right call so far this season.
Why change that now?
“When we go back each week, we’re still creating and meeting our explosive play goal,” McSorley said. “We have to keep pressing on in what we’re doing and not forcing deep shots. Just let those come — and when we have that chance, we have to make that play.”