Penn State Football

Why didn’t Penn State’s offense take shots downfield? Here’s what they said

Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne stops Penn State wide receiver Juwan Johnson from making a catch in the end zone during the game on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018.
Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne stops Penn State wide receiver Juwan Johnson from making a catch in the end zone during the game on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. adrey@centredaily.com

Trace McSorley collapsed to one knee after Penn State’s failed Hail Mary. He stared at the grass, his helmet by his side, while the crowd fell stunned and silent.

This, a 21-17 loss to Michigan State, isn’t what he expected. Amid a throng of reporters, he shouldered the blame for the loss — “I didn’t do enough of a good job today to get the job done in the passing game; that’s on me” — but he didn’t have an answer for everything.

The question that stumped him: Why not try taking some deep shots against the nation’s No. 122-ranked pass defense?

“I don’t really know why we hadn’t really done that,” McSorley said, again reiterating that he just didn’t execute while Miles Sanders ran well.

He wasn’t the only one who didn’t have an answer. Coach James Franklin answered around the question Saturday night and instead discussed making the most of opportunities. Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne was not made available, as is Franklin’s postgame policy. And other players seemed unsure how to answer.

Speedster K.J. Hamler glanced down and needed to pause for three seconds when asked whether he was surprised Penn State didn’t go deep more often.

“That’s not,” he said, stopping hinself short. “It was just part of our game plan. We were going to get the ball in space a lot. I don’t know; I’m not Coach so I can’t decide. I’m not going to blame nothing on nobody because we’re a family. It’s not just one person; we’re a team.”

Michigan State entered the game as the worst pass defense in the Big Ten, allowing just over 305 yards per game. McSorley came in ranked as Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 quarterback in the Big Ten and leads the conference with an average depth of target of 12.6 yards.

None of those rankings meant much Saturday.

Fans and critics alike began wondering as early as the second quarter where the deep passes were. With at least three wideouts who run in the 4.4s or better, the long pass had long been a staple of the Penn State offense.

But Rahne and the Nittany Lions chose not to air it out until the third quarter, when McSorley didn’t see a wide-open Miles Sanders in the flat and threw a long incompletion. (At that point, McSorley acknowledged he was pressing to make a play.) His first “explosive” completion didn’t come until about 40 minutes into the game, when tight end Pat Freiermuth reeled in a 25-yard completion over the middle.

Offensive lineman Michal Menet said he has “a ton of faith in Coach Rahne” — but he couldn’t say for sure why Penn State didn’t take more shots either.

“Honestly, I don’t really know,” he said. “I think we did a good job running the ball against them, and I’m not sure if that was more our focus today or what.”

Sanders rushed for 162 yards. But, outside of Sanders’ two big runs, Penn State ran 30 times for 79 yards. McSorley threw just three incompletions by halftime but was just 10 of 13 for 72 yards. He was sacked just once the entire game.

Hamler said the receivers didn’t have problems creating separation. And McSorley refused, just like he did against Ohio State, to place any blame on the coaching staff. He instead heaped it upon his own shoulders.

During his first 15 minutes on the dais, he took the blame at least five different times. “It’s just, I wasn’t that good and I didn’t do what I needed to do throwing the ball to give our team a chance,” he said the fifth time.

Not taking more chances downfield isn’t the reason Penn State lost. (The offense couldn’t get a first down in the final four minutes, the defense couldn’t hold up at the end, and silly mistakes peppered throughout the game — such as C.J. Thorpe’s goal-line penalty — cost them big.) But McSorley, who set a school record two weeks ago with 461 total yards against the nation’s No. 3 team, was once again not put in a position that utilized all his strengths.

And as a result? Hamler might have summed it up best when asked if the Michigan State defense beat Penn State on Saturday.

“We beat ourselves,” he said.

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