Penn State Football

Here’s why Penn State QB Trace McSorley deserves to be in the Heisman conversation

‘I’m glad he’s on my team’ Johnson says of McSorley

Penn State wide receiver Juwan Johnson talks about quarterback Trace McSorley during the football weekly press conference on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018.
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Penn State wide receiver Juwan Johnson talks about quarterback Trace McSorley during the football weekly press conference on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018.

Trace McSorley’s resume this season already reads like a Heisman candidate in a lot of ways.

He accounted for 461 yards, or 94 percent of the total offense, against Ohio State. He scored 16 total touchdowns while leading the nation’s fourth-highest scoring offense. And he recently graded out better than Dwayne Haskins, by Pro Football Focus.

But McSorley is the first to say that’s not enough. He said Wednesday he’s capable of more.

“I’m the first one to tell you that our passing game hasn’t been what we want it to be,” he said. “So there’s a lot of great players out there, all these guys putting up big numbers, so I’m not going to sit here and say I deserve to be there right now.”

Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa has thrown 18 touchdowns to zero interceptions. Haskins boasts a nation-leading 25 touchdown passes. West Virginia’s Will Grier and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray both have top-6 passer ratings.

But McSorley’s value goes well beyond the box score, and those Heisman conversations tend not to dig deeper than the scratch-the-surface stats. McSorley isn’t all wrong — college football’s top quarterbacks are posting some crazy numbers — but he’s wrong if he thinks he doesn’t belong in that same conversation. The Nittany Lions quarterback deserves more credit.

Heading into the Ohio State game, McSorley was ranked seventh on ESPN’s Heisman Watch, a panel of 10 experts that rank the trophy’s top contenders. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who’s not on the panel, all but advised listeners on a “Behind the Bets” podcast to place a wager on McSorley’s Heisman odds. Sports Illustrated also featured McSorley as a contender to watch.

But after the Ohio State game? McSorley hasn’t received a single vote on that same ESPN panel the last two weeks. And in The Athletic’s most recent Heisman straw poll, which involves 34 reporters, McSorley didn’t garner a single vote — although there was one for sophomore Arizona linebacker Colin Schooler.

Sure, Penn State lost — but one would think a 461-yard performance against the nation’s No. 3 team wouldn’t lead to being immediately forgotten. The game that some see as the one that cost McSorley consideration may very well end up being the most impressive performance by a Big Ten quarterback this year.

McSorley set a school record with his 461 yards of total offense, and his 175 rushing yards were the most by a Penn State quarterback since 1913 — just seven years after college football legalized the forward pass. It was a historic effort.

But a number of analysts and media outlets, such as ESPN’s Heisman Watch, still dropped McSorley altogether after the Ohio State game.

“I would think in a lot of ways, it would be the opposite — you wouldn’t write him off after the Ohio State game,” coach James Franklin said after practice Wednesday night. “He was the Big Ten Player of the Week in my opinion; I don’t care what anybody says. He played like crazy.”

Plenty of others agree with Franklin. FOX analyst Matt Leinart, a former USC quarterback, put McSorley at No. 5 on his most recent Heisman list. Brett McMurphy offered McSorley an honorable mention on his list. The online sportsbook Bovada even increased McSorley’s Heisman odds from 25-to-1 to 12-to-1.

McSorley doesn’t boast the same type of numbers as Tagovailoa or Haskins or even Grier. But that doesn’t mean his performance has been any less critical to his team. Against Appalachian State, he guided the offense to a game-tying drive in the final two minutes and to an overtime win. Against Illinois and Pitt, he helped the offense overcame slow starts and mistakes en route to big second halves and blowout wins.

He didn’t have five touchdown passes against Tulane, like Haskins. And he didn’t go a perfect 8-for-8 against the Louisiana Ragin Cajuns, like Tagovailoa. But until he’s the reason for a Penn State loss, and not the sole reason for keeping the game close to begin with, he deserves to be in the discussion.

Even if he doesn’t think so.