Penn State Football

Battle between Trace McSorley, Wisconsin secondary crucial

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley yells out calls as the team practices for the Big Ten Championship game on Wednesday. McSorley’s play against Wisconsin’s secondary could be key on Saturday.
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley yells out calls as the team practices for the Big Ten Championship game on Wednesday. McSorley’s play against Wisconsin’s secondary could be key on Saturday. adrey@centredaily.com

You all know the saying.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

Well, we’re about to find out Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

When No. 7 Penn State and No. 6 Wisconsin meet in Indianapolis to battle for the Big Ten Championship, there will be a lot of talking points and keys to the game.

But the top-billed matchup is an obvious one.

The unstoppable force? Penn State’s big-play passing attack.

The immovable, unshakable object? Wisconsin’s opportunistic secondary.

Something has to give.

“They are talented in the secondary. They’re experienced in the secondary, no doubt,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of Wisconsin. “I think we are talented at receiver and tight end. We are experienced at receiver and tight end. That will be a really interesting matchup in this game.”

The Badgers lead the country in interceptions with 21, and they have three players with at least four picks: safety Leo Musso (5), cornerback Sojourn Shelton (4) and safety D’Cota Dixon (4).

In the last three games alone, Wisconsin has 11 interceptions, and while those contests were against turnover-prone teams (Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota), the numbers don’t lie. The Badger secondary can’t be overlooked or dismissed.

However, one could argue that Wisconsin has yet to face an offense as explosive as Penn State’s. The Badgers’ two losses (at Michigan, vs. Ohio State) came to teams that don’t typically push the ball downfield. The Wolverines rank 45th in completions of 20 yards or more, according to CFBStats.com, while the Buckeyes are 93rd in that category.

Penn State slides in at No. 7 nationally and first in the Big Ten with 57 passing plays of 20 yards or more. Moreover, the Nittany Lions are third in the country with 20 plays of 40 yards or more.

The recipe for Penn State’s success hitting those deep balls? Quarterback Trace McSorley, a stable of competent pass-catchers, and the coaches’ confidence in all of them.

McSorley has made his hey this year by chucking it deep. The redshirt sophomore is third nationally with 32 completions of 30 yards or more, and first in the country with 16.17 yards per completion. During Penn State’s eight-game winning streak, McSorley has averaged 18.45 yards per completion.

He’s lighting up defenses, and Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst noticed him while scouting other opponents throughout the Big Ten slate.

“As we got ready for other teams and you see them on film and you see (McSorley) on film, he makes a lot of plays pushing the ball down the field,” Chryst said in a Sunday teleconference. “I liked watching him, until this week when we’re getting ready to play him.”

Chryst also mentioned McSorley’s capacity to beat defenses with his legs — and it’s that mobility, Franklin believes, generates all those explosive plays.

“He’s one of those quarterbacks that when he steps up in the pocket, even when he’s kind of on the run, his eyes are downfield,” Franklin said. “That puts your underneath coverage and defense in conflict. Are they going to step up and stop Trace from running? When you do that, that creates really good throwing lanes.”

The coach continued.

“The other thing is, as good as defensive backs are all over the country, and specifically in the Big Ten, if the offensive line can protect, then the quarterback can extend,” Franklin said. “I don’t care who you are, I think playing defensive back may be one of the most difficult positions in all of sports.”

And a quarterback like McSorley, paired with wideouts like Penn State has at its disposal, makes the job of those defensive backs that much harder.

Junior wideout Chris Godwin, who leads the Nittany Lions in receptions (47), receiving yards (762) and touchdowns (9), also has the most catches of 30 yards or more on the team (7).

But the deep-ball production isn’t limited to Godwin. Penn State has nine players — six receivers, two running backs and a tight end — with catches of 40 yards or more.

“I think it’s Trace doing a really good job of not keying in on one guy and saying, I’m throwing it to this guy,” Franklin said. “He’s going to go through his progressions. I think it’s also Trace’s confidence that we have so many guys that can make plays.”

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9

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