This is the last “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” of the year, so let’s get right into it.
It’ll be an excruciatingly long time until we have actual college football back in our lives. The good news is, though, that head coach James Franklin, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and quarterback Trace McSorley couldn’t possibly have given us more tidbits to chew on from this weekend’s 37-0 Blue Team tail-whipping as we wait for summer to pass.
Penn State football fans desperately needed the kind of offensive show McSorley and his eight — eight! — targeted receivers put on during Saturday’s Blue-White game, in which the redshirt sophomore threw for 281 yards and four touchdowns along with a neat little 23 for 27 completion ratio.
In fact, McSorley was 8 for 8 with a touchdown before he made his first snafu, a straight-up misfire intended for Mike Gesicki that was picked off by Amani Oruwariye.
It was an impressive performance, but a couple specifics about the style of McSorley’s game really stuck out.
1. He’s precise.
The young quarterback must get along well with the meticulous Moorhead, because of the attention he pays to his progressions and reads. When McSorley was in action, it truly looked like a “smarter” brand of football — yes, the spread and the uptempo style highlights athletic receivers and quick routes while hiding sorer spots (offensive line) but still, the kid looked confident and clever out there. And, Franklin said McSorley has been about that accurate all spring.
“Between him and Tommy (Stevens), they have been in the 70 (percent range) pretty much all spring. But I thought the receivers did a great job of coming back to the ball,” the head coach said. “I thought they did a great job of taking what the defense was giving. The thing I was probably most impressed with in standing out there on the field is just, (McSorley) looked very comfortable.”
It’s no wonder McSorley likes the system so much — he played a version of it all through high school, and his then-head coach, Charlie Pierce, adjusted his scheme to be more run/pass option-friendly after losing his two top running backs to injury. In that system, with the ability and control to make post-snap decisions, McSorley thrived and led the team to three straight state titles, throwing for 12,000 yards in the process.
Isn’t it fun to watch a system fit a quarterback, and vice-versa?
2. He’s gutsy.
McSorley surprised many people on Saturday with his willingness to stay put in the pocket and give his progressions their due under pressure.
He told me when we sat down last month that he actually wishes he were a pocket passer and while he emulates guys who can take a two-step drop and sling it 60 yards, he just happens to be able to run a 4.5-second 40-yard dash and has used that to his advantage.
But on throws like the 35-yard rifle to DeAndre Thompkins, who burned his coverage for a touchdown, McSorley stood firm, feet dancing a bit as he scanned the field until he stepped up in the pocket to throw, instead of just taking off running under pressure as he very well could have.
The young quarterback didn’t even use his legs at all, in fact, until some designed runs — designed runs! — were called by Moorhead. He also showed he can throw on the run if he absolutely has to — and against Big Ten pass rushers, he’ll certainly have to this fall — when he took off for a few yards and then fired a dart to DaeSean Hamilton up the sideline.
▪ Welcome to “The Good” section, Gesicki.
The tight end looked worlds better as a blocker on Saturday than he did last season (he stays after each practice and hits the blocking sleds), and caught three passes for 30 yards, including a 22-yard long. In fact, in three of four targets by McSorley, the one Gesicki did miss was an error by the quarterback.
▪ Evan Schwan and Keven Givens are looking to step into larger roles on the defensive line, and made quite a case for themselves during the Blue-White game. Givens led the team with six tackles, 3 1/2 tackles for loss and two sacks while Schwan took down Stevens off the edge for a safety.
Walk-on (and former volleyball player) Colin Castagna was impressive as a second-teamer, leading the White defense with six tackles and a sack alongside three tackles for loss against the first-team offensive line.
▪ Mark Allen may not get many carries as long as Saquon Barkley is at Penn State, but he certainly made the most of the latter’s sideline confinement on Saturday. Allen took reps for both teams, finishing with 14 carries for 64 yards and caught a combined five passes for 48 yards.
“I did what I had to do,” Allen said after the game. “Hopefully I surprised some fans.”
Tommy Stevens didn’t exactly turn heads on Saturday. The redshirt freshman went 7 for 14 with 48 yards and while he showcased his arm with a broken-up deep ball to Juwan Johnson, he also looked skittish, bolting 12 times when perhaps scanning downfield would have better-served the play.
However, the cut-and-run tactics weren’t all his fault — the first-team defensive line shredded Stevens’ second-team protection and he was “sacked” four times. When Stevens was with the first-team offensive line and receivers, he was 3 for 3 with 52 yards and executed run-pass options nicely.
▪ Maybe McSorley really is “that good,” but the first-team offense truly picked apart the second-team defense and that’s not a good sign, no matter how hindered the unit is by injuries.
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry, like Bob Shoop before him, likes to rotate in second-teamers throughout the linebacker and defensive line units during the course of a game to spell starters a rep or two at a time, so the defensive backups need to clean their play up quite a bit before the fall. After all, every team but Michigan and Michigan State run spread offenses in the highly competitive Big Ten East, so if half of Penn State’s defense can’t stop the scheme, it doesn’t bode well.
Many of you probably tried to forget the missed 42-yard field goal by Tyler Davis with seven seconds left on the clock to try to put some points on the board for the White Team — in fact, even from way up in the press box your groans were quite audible when the kick went wide left.
The good news is, though, by the time we discuss special teams in this column again, there will be both a scholarship kicker and punter on campus in Alex Barbir and Blake Gillikin.