Backup QB Tommy Stevens a do-it-all option for No. 4 Penn State

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Backup QB Tommy Stevens a do-it-all option for No. 4 Penn State

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Tommy Stevens will take over as Penn State's starting quarterback eventually. Now, he's helping starter Trace McSorley any way he can. 

No. 4 Penn State's do-it-all backup has emerged as another option in a loaded offense. Stevens has run for, caught and thrown for touchdowns already and could see more opportunities as Penn State looks for more ways to incorporate its big, athletic backup heading into the Big Ten opener at Iowa on Saturday.

"It puts another weapon on the field," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "He's a big, strong, fast guy, and then obviously they have to be concerned about him throwing the ball as well. I think this package will just continue to evolve."

Stevens, who pushed McSorley for the starting job late into training camp last season, offers an intriguing option for an offense already with stars in Mike Gesicki and Heisman candidate Saquon Barkley. 

He can line up like either one or even split out like a traditional wide receiver. Stevens' knowledge of the offense gives him useful intelligence when it comes time to attack a defense from one of a handful of alignments.

Take his first career touchdown catch - which sparked Penn State's 52-0 rout of Georgia State on Saturday - as an example.

Stevens lined up as a tight end would, off the line of scrimmage and to McSorley's left. He slid right at the snap, hauled in a swing pass from McSorley and burst through Georgia State's secondary for an opening 10-yard score. 

Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead dialed up the play early in the week and surprised Stevens with it in practice.

"There weren't a whole lot of times we did it in practice where I actually caught the ball," Stevens said. "So I saw the (strong side linebacker) come off the edge and I was like, `Oh man, I'm actually going to catch the ball here.' So Trace did a good job of evading, giving me a great ball, I caught it and did my best to score."

His best is better than most backups who are usually relegated to holding clipboards and wearing headsets. 

The former Indiana high school standout entered Penn State with sub-4.7 40-yard-dash speed and his long strides coupled with his cutting ability made him a good dual-threat candidate to lead Moorhead's offense. But Stevens, a year behind the junior McSorley, was edged by McSorley's experience. So he immediately tried to find other ways to contribute.

It hasn't taken Moorhead long to work Stevens in. It began last year against the Iowa Hawkeyes, who now have to worry about Stevens even more when they meet on Saturday inside Kinnick Stadium.

Then, Stevens ran five times for 70 yards and added his first career touchdown in the 41-14 win.

Stevens enjoys the possibility that the Hawkeyes are likely preparing to see him on the field in one of many potential formations.

"Coach Moorhead has endless amounts of ideas about getting guys in space," Stevens said. "They've got to spend more time to put this kind of stuff in in practice for us." 

Moorhead doesn't have to change anything for Stevens if Penn State needs its backup to play his natural position. Franklin believes his No. 2 quarterback has a mastery of the offense on par with McSorley's.

Stevens got a chance to show off his quarterbacking skills - and a glimpse of what could be in store after McSorley exhausts his eligibility - on Saturday, too. 

After taking a hard hit on his first snap in relief of McSorley, Stevens threw a dart over the middle for a 35-yard touchdown to Saeed Blacknall. He took another big hit and watched Blacknall's catch from his backside.

Afterward, he sounded like a starting quarterback, making a point to refute the criticism he's heard of Blacknall's slow start. Instead, Stevens credited his big receiver for making the play, even though it was a perfectly thrown ball.

"Tommy shows that ability all the time," safety Marcus Allen said. "He has a second gear he can kick into. It's another dynamic and electrifying player like that on the field. We can put a lot of stress on a D because you don't know what we're going to hit you with."

No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: This time, Lions favored in 'whiteout' game

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No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: This time, Lions favored in 'whiteout' game

This team is back. That team is back. The practice of proclaiming that a struggling traditional college football power has returned to elite status after a big win is fraught with false steps.

The truth is that a return to glory can rarely be narrowed down to a single game. But if there ever was a "they're back" moment in college football that turned out to be real, it was on Oct. 22, 2016, in State College, Pennsylvania.

That night, unranked Penn State — a month removed from getting demolished at Michigan and three weeks after an overtime escape against Minnesota that had Nittany Lions fans booing the home team — beat No. 2 Ohio State in a Beaver Stadium whiteout. For the first time under coach James Franklin, Happy Valley was euphoric about Penn State football.

The Nittany Lions have been one of the best teams in the country since.

One year after that victory, the Nittany Lions have another whiteout scheduled and another Big Ten power visiting for a nationally televised game. The difference is that it will be no upset if No. 2 Penn State (6-0) beats No. 19 Michigan (5-1) on Saturday night.

The Wolverines have one of the best defenses in the country, but a lethargic offense (86th in the nation). Penn State looks like a College Football Playoff team right now with a Heisman Trophy contender in running back Saquon Barkley, a top-25 offense (6.49 yards per play) and a top-five defense (4.01 ypp).

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called Penn State "a well-built team."

"They're really good everywhere," he said.

It's easy to point to last year's Ohio State game as a turning point for Penn State in the post-Joe Paterno era, but the humbling loss to Michigan was also notable. The Nittany Lions were banged up on defense and still working out the kinks of a new offense, but at that moment they looked light years from being able to consistently compete with the best in the country. They have not lost a regular-season game since.

All this talk of turning points does not resonate with Franklin, who just sees a long steady grind that continues to this day.

"Like I say with a lot of things, there's 25 slices in this pie," Franklin said. "The Michigan loss last year was a factor. Development was a factor. Players taking responsibility and accountability was a factor. The coaches building relationships and chemistry with the players was a factor. I don't make it as simplistic as a lot of people want it to be."

Things to know about 21st meeting between Penn State and Michigan, but the first since 2002 in which both teams are ranked:

Brown delivers
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown and Franklin worked together at Maryland under coach Ralph Friedgen in 2009 and '10.

"I would describe Don as a greedy defensive coordinator," said Franklin, who was offensive coordinator. "What I mean by that is, most defensive coordinators are going to try to take something away, but when they take something away, they're giving you something.

"Don doesn't believe in that. Don is going to overload the box. A lot of guys are going to be on the line of scrimmage in blitz demeanor. The defensive backs are going to be pressed pretty much across the board. They're going to try to take your run game away. They're going to take all the easy throws away."

Heisman watch
Barkley's Heisman campaign slowed a bit the last couple weeks as he was held to a 121 yards rushing and 60 receiving. Still, he is without question the focus of Michigan's defense.

"He runs with great balance," Michigan linebacker Devin Bush said told reporters this week. "He can make those cuts. He can hit those small holes."

Penn State's offensive line has had issues keeping defenders out of the backfield and giving Barkley a chance to get rolling. The Nittany Lions rank 122nd in the nation in tackles for loss allowed at 8.33 per game.

"We just have to be more physical up front and sustain our blocks," center Connor McGovern said.

Sluggish Wolverines
Michigan's team passer efficiency rating is 114.41, better than only Illinois and Rutgers in the Big Ten. John O'Korn (one touchdown pass, four interceptions) is expected to start again at quarterback.

Gameday
For the first time since 2009, ESPN's "College GameDay" pregame show will broadcast from State College. Beaver Stadium holds almost 107,000 people and when almost all of them are wearing white it can be one of the most hypnotic sights in college football. Penn State only holds whiteouts for big games. The Nittany Lions are 6-7 in those games.

Maturing Trace McSorley effective with short, quick passes

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Maturing Trace McSorley effective with short, quick passes

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — To take the next step in his evolution, Trace McSorley first had to go backward.

Penn State's quarterback went back in the offseason and reviewed enough film and saw enough open receivers who never had a shot to catch one of his passes. There, sitting in front of a computer screen, was the first time McSorley had looked their way.

"Where I was at this point last year, and even toward the end of the year, it felt like I was kind of predetermining things," McSorley said. "Now I feel like I'm doing a better job of going through my progressions and finding that open guy, getting to that third guy in the progression if the first two aren't there."

McSorley might've earned a national reputation for airing out deep balls down the stretch last season, but he's finding that managing a game by taking what defenses give works just as well.

It's also a much more dependable strategy for offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.

"That's what this offense was designed to do," tight end Mike Gesicki said. "You may not see the 70-yard touchdowns that we've had in the past, but that's because defenses aren't allowing us to do that."

After finishing fifth among FBS quarterbacks with 65 completions of 20 or more yards last year, McSorley is on pace for 52 so far. While he's not throwing deep as much, McSorley is using just about every other inch of the field in front of the first-down marker.

That quick passing game has come in handy.

Penn State's rushing attack, which is averaging 1.8 yards per carry on 75 attempts over the last two games, struggled badly against Northwestern. Save for a 53-yard touchdown run from Barkley, the Nittany Lions managed just 42 yards on 38 other carries. McSorley made up the difference by completing 16 of 20 passes that traveled less than 9 yards in the air for short gains to get drives started or keep them going.

"I think he's pretty much better in every metric possible," Penn State coach James Franklin said.

That includes his completion percentage — up nine percentage points to 67 percent — with more yards (1,597), touchdowns (13), attempts (194) and completions (130) than at this time last year. But the area McSorley takes the most pride in is his increased understanding of how defenses open up as plays develop. With it, McSorley's been able to make the most of plays by making good use of his time in the pocket.

Take a third-and-14 from midfield against the Wildcats for example. McSorley had time and his eyes scanned from left to right. He saw Juwan Johnson on an outside comeback, covered. Tight end Mike Gesicki was shadowed on a shallow crossing route. His third option, DaeSean Hamilton, ran a deeper cross and finally found a seam for McSorley to thread for a first down.

"I think Trace has gotten a lot more comfortable just being a quarterback," Gesicki said. "Any time you're in a system for another year, and you're with the same coach, not really switching up anything, you're always going to be more comfortable, more able to go through progressions or read defenses quicker."

As his quarterback has expanded his capacity, Moorhead has found more ways to get quick, shifty receivers the ball so they can gains yards after the catch in space. Those plays — simple, short, confidence-building throws to the flats or on outside routes — could be tougher to complete against No. 19 Michigan's top overall defense on Saturday.

The Wolverines like to play man-to-man coverage and the Nittany Lions are expecting a physical battle from a secondary that's giving up just 138 yards per game.

"They're going to take all the easy throws away," Franklin said. "It's going to be press coverage, man coverage. Our guys are going to have to create space with the routes, and they're going to have to make contested catches."