The question was about his quarterback, and James Franklin had numbers at the ready.
“I think he’s pretty much better in every metric possible,” the Penn State coach said when asked to compare Trace McSorley’s performance from this time a year ago.
“To be honest with you, it’s not even really close,” Franklin said, first citing the No. 4 Nittany Lions’ 5-0 record compared to the 3-2 start in 2016. “Completion percentage, first five games from last year was 58 percent. He’s at 65 percent. OK, even if you want to take the last five games of (2016) … he was 61 percent last year. He’s 65 right now in the first five. Touchdown-interception ratio, last year in the first five games, he had six touchdowns and three interceptions, and right now he has 12 and four.
“I don’t think it’s even close, kind of in every category that you can look at. If you compare him to the last five, he’s pretty much on par. You can make an argument better in some categories. If you compare it to the first five games of last year, he’s by far ahead.”
After last season’s run to the Rose Bowl, the bar has been set exceptionally high for McSorley and the offense as a whole. So when things don’t go flawlessly — the Lions struggled to find the end zone at Iowa and were shut down in the second quarter against Indiana — it’s the quarterback who’s in the crosshairs.
“I think it’s not forcing things and taking what defenses are giving me,” McSorley said. “…There’s been times we’ve had issues on offense, and a lot of that does fall on me.”
As a team, Penn State ranks 14th nationally in scoring offense (41.4 ppg) and 29th in total offense (471.2 ypg). Both figures place them second in the Big Ten, behind only Ohio State.
But the team’s high expectations also serve to magnify any cracks that develop.
One common thread between the Lions’ first two conference games — 21-19 over Iowa and 45-14 over Indiana — has been time in the pocket. Both the Hawkeyes and Hoosiers were able to get sustained pressure on McSorley to the point where he had a few plays where he rushed a throw or abandoned the pocket too soon.
It likely hasn’t helped that injuries have forced Penn State to start three different right tackles in the last three games with both Chasz Wright and Andrew Nelson not 100 percent. Redshirt freshman Will Fries started against Indiana with Wright seeing limited action and Nelson out of uniform.
“I think the biggest thing is we have not had consistency at … right tackle,” Franklin said. “We’ve played three different guys there for a number of different reasons, and the reality is, whether it’s all five playing really well together or whether it’s four guys playing well or three guys playing well — you need all five. All five have to be playing at a high level or people would say the O-Line is not doing as well as they should.
“I think our O-line is playing good enough to win, but we need to get better.”
Not coincidentally, when the protection began to improve midway through the third quarter against Indiana, the offense closed the game out with 17 unanswered points.
“(The difference after halftime) was a multitude of guys making plays and our line basically giving Trace protection, giving him enough time to distribute the ball to different guys,” senior wideout DaeSean Hamilton said. “That’s really all it took.”
Now that opposing coaches have had a year of experience against McSorley and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s scheme, some patterns have emerged.
Defenses are trying to take away the deep ball that the Lions drew so much momentum from a year ago, hoping that McSorley eventually gets impatient and chucks one up into double coverage.
As part of that, they don’t want McSorley to be able to climb the pocket, where he could either launch it deep or take off with it himself. The Hoosiers did a particularly good job of this, as McSorley was sacked five times and finished with minus-19 rushing yards, the second-lowest total of his career.
“There never was a clear running lane when I stepped up in the pocket,” McSorley said. “Iowa did a little bit of the same thing. Just clogging up the middle, not giving you anything clean.”
Up next is a trip to Northwestern Saturday. After the ensuing bye week, the toughest tests will begin with back-to-back games against Michigan and Ohio State — two of the best defensive lines in the country.
“It’s making great decisions with the ball,” Franklin said. “Knowing when to hang in the pocket and knowing when to take off and run. All those types of things. And really, over the last year-and-a-half, he’s been really good. He’s been really good in those areas, and we want to continue to build on it.”