Penn State passing game still shaky headed into Week 3

By Derek Levarse - [email protected]
James Franklin and Trace McSorley are looking to work out some kinks in the passing game on Saturday against Kent State. - Gene J. Puskar | AP photo

The 96 points in two weeks are nice and all. But that’s not on Trace McSorley’s mind right now.

Penn State’s senior quarterback knows that the Nittany Lions’ passing game isn’t where it needs to be in the early going. And it’s up to him and his receivers to get things cleaned up on Saturday against Kent State before heading into Big Ten play.

“We’re just a little bit off right now,” McSorley said. “But that’s something that we’re continuing to work on every single day. It’s not going to be something that’s going to be fixed overnight. But we’re working hard.”

Though McSorley has thrown a couple of clutch touchdowns to KJ Hamler — one to tie the game in the final minute of regulation against Appalachian State and another in the final minute of the first half against Pitt — the overall production has been inconsistent.

Penn State ranks 86th nationally in passing at just over 200 yards per game — behind this week’s opponent, the Golden Flashes. Last Saturday’s perpetual rain in Pittsburgh didn’t help matters, but some of the same issues were there a week earlier in the opener.

Most notable has been dropped passes across the board. What’s concerning is that they’re coming from the two veteran receivers, junior Juwan Johnson and senior DeAndre Thompkins.

On one drive against the Panthers before the score got out of hand, Thompkins had a potential touchdown glance off both hands in the back of the end zone. Just a play later, Johnson had one clang off of him near the sideline.

Thompkins wasn’t targeted at all against the Mountaineers and has lost some of his reps to Brandon Polk, who started in his place last Saturday. Johnson was targeted frequently in Week 1 but couldn’t haul in a few important passes, including an early fourth-and-short.

What would have been Penn State’s longest offensive play of the season — a 64-yard touchdown pass to running back Miles Sanders on a wheel route — was wiped out when Johnson was called for throwing a block on a Pitt defender with the ball in the air, a penalty that Lions coach James Franklin said was correctly called.

“I think both Juwan and DeAndre have higher standards and expectations of how they want to play,” Franklin said. “I have the utmost confidence in those guys, and I think they are both going to have huge years for us. But yeah, I think there’s a few plays they would like to have back, there’s no doubt about it.

“We’re going to look back at the end of the year and say, ‘Wow, what huge years these guys had.’ I’m very, very confident that that’s going to happen.”


Looking to bounce back

The missed opportunities are a bit more glaring now that record-setting weapons DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki and Saquon Barkley are in the NFL.

Penn State is still working things out at tight end, where Jonathan Holland, Danny Dalton and Pat Freiermuth are all splitting time.

And injuries have also sidelined a couple of intriguing targets in Tommy Stevens and true freshman Justin Shorter, the nation’s top-rated wide receiver recruit in 2018. With bigger games on the horizon, the Lions are expected to hold both players out for a third straight week.

McSorley, for one, is confident that the veterans, Johnson and Thompkins, will round into form.

 “The biggest part is making sure those guys stay confident and those guys remain the leaders in that wide receiver room,” McSorley said. “And that’s who they are — everyone still looks up to them. It doesn’t matter that they might not have gotten off to the start they wanted or everyone else wanted to see them get off to, but they’re still the leaders in that room.”

Catch your breath

On the other side of the ball, Penn State must deal with an offense that will attempt to run as many plays as possible, similar to the pace that Indiana had run under former coach Kevin Wilson.

That philosophy continues to branch out in college football and is seen in places like Syracuse, where Dino Babers is trying to rebuild that program. Kent State liked that scheme and mindset enough to hire Babers’ offensive coordinator, Sean Lewis, in the offseason, making him the youngest head coach in the nation at age 32.

“This is going to be a tempo offense, probably the fastest tempo team that we’ve seen since we’ve been here,” Franklin said. “Very much like Syracuse has been. Very much like Baylor used to be. They like to run the counter. They like to run the zone read. They like to run the split zone and the power play. They love the quick game and the RPO stuff and then everything runs through the quarterback.”

That quarterback isn’t the typical MAC talent either. Davis was able to land former Auburn four-star recruit Woody Barrett, who transferred out of the SEC and played last season at a junior college.

Cappy and friends

Penn State will be honoring the 45th anniversary of Penn State’s unbeaten 1973 squad at halftime with Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti serving as the Lions’ honorary captain.

Cappelletti rushed for over 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns that season as Penn State finished 12-0. He remains the program’s only Heisman winner and the only Lions player to have his jersey number retired.

Prior to the game, students from Wyoming Valley West will participate in the “Blue Band Jam” as one of 12 high school bands from across the state performing a free concert alongside Penn State’s Blue Band at 9:30 a.m. at the Bryce Jordan Center. Doors open at 9 a.m.

James Franklin and Trace McSorley are looking to work out some kinks in the passing game on Saturday against Kent State. Franklin and Trace McSorley are looking to work out some kinks in the passing game on Saturday against Kent State. Gene J. Puskar | AP photo

By Derek Levarse

[email protected]


Kent State (1-1) at

No. 11 Penn State (2-0)

Noon, today, FS1

Beaver Stadium

Line: PSU by 35