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."

Hunt for clues about Saquon Barkley's future at Penn State is on

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Hunt for clues about Saquon Barkley's future at Penn State is on

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – For months now, everyone has been seeking clues as to what Saquon Barkley’s intentions beyond this season might be, and the detective work continued Saturday.

Is Penn State’s prized junior running back headed to the NFL after this season? Is he even going to play in the Nittany Lions’ bowl game?

The latter question was answered in the affirmative after Barkley generated 224 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in PSU’s 56-44 defeat of Nebraska: He’s a go for whatever bowl the No. 10 Lions, now 9-2, find themselves in.

Still TBA beyond that. While coach James Franklin advised Barkley before the season as to what he should do, Franklin wouldn’t divulge the particulars of that conversation. (You’re shocked, I’m sure.) And Barkley said he still wants to talk to his family before he decides whether or not to declare for next spring’s draft.

So we wait. And we hunt for clues.

Like when Franklin said he was “blessed to have coached” Barkley – past tense -- what did THAT mean?

Uh, nothing, Franklin said – though he did launch into a monologue about advising Barkley, and advising players in general.

“What I try to do for all of my players is give them advice that I would give my son,” he said. “If I feel like they should come back to school to finish their degree and have the opportunity to go on and get one more season of development, and then go to the NFL, I tell them that. If I think they should leave early, then I tell them that as well.”

It’s quite simple, in his mind.

“If IBM came to our computer engineering department and offered a junior a $12 million contract, they’d be gone,” Franklin said. “So I give these guys information all the time based on the entire picture -- what their future is like, where they’re at academically.”

Which sounded like a hint at to what he might have told Barkley, all those months ago. But again, who knows?

What we do know is that Barkley is a likely top-five pick. And while he has performed unevenly this season through no fault of his own (i.e., the offensive line has been surprisingly poor), he scored on a 65-yard run three plays into Saturday’s game, went over 100 yards for the game (and 1,000 for the season) when he broke off a 30-yard run on the final play of the first quarter and finished the half with 142 yards and three TDs.

The Lions were up 42-10 at that point. Barkley's final totals were 17 carries for 158 yards and three TDs, and six catches for 66 yards. He became just the second player in program history to surpass 1,000 in three straight seasons – Evan Royster was the other – and overtook Lydell Mitchell for most career rushing TDs; Barkley now has 39.

And that's all with two games remaining this season.

Yes, definitely two – at Maryland in next week’s regular-season finale, and then the bowl, wherever that may be.

Again, there were clues as far back as May that Barkley might follow in the footsteps of two other NFL-bound running backs, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, who skipped bowl games last year to prepare for the draft. Fournette was taken fourth overall by Jacksonville and McCaffery was taken eighth overall by Carolina

In an SI.com profile by Pete Thamel, Barkley was quoted as saying the following: “I would have a hard time doing it (i.e., skipping a bowl), but I’m not going to sit here and say I would never do it. I don’t know. I could be in a situation next year where I have close to two broken ankles, God forbid, or something going on in my upper body, and I can’t play in a game if I’m considering playing in the NFL.”

But he said Saturday he definitely plans to play, barring the unforeseen.

“I understand why some other players have not played in a bowl game,” he said. “I’m different from Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey. … Our situations are different.”

Barkley admitted that he did get “a little emotional” Saturday, not so much because it was his final home game but because it was the last time he would be playing alongside the seniors in Beaver Stadium -- “no matter what happens.”

No clues there, then. His play, however, would appear to offer the biggest clue of all, and leaves little reason for doubt.

Why, at this point, should the sporting equivalent of IBM have to wait any longer?

No. 10 Penn State coasts to win over Nebraska

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No. 10 Penn State coasts to win over Nebraska

BOX SCORE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Saquon Barkley collected 224 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns as No. 10 Penn State battered Nebraska, 56-44, Saturday afternoon in its final home game of the season.

Barkley, slowed in recent weeks after a strong start to the season, rushed 17 times for 158 yards and three scores, and caught six passes for 66 yards, helping the Lions improve to 9-2.

PSU, which closes out the regular season next week at Maryland, generated its most points since it put up 63 against Illinois in 2005.

Trace McSorley clicked on 24 of 36 passes for 325 yards and three scores, two to tight end Mike Gesicki. McSorley also rushed nine times for 46 yards and a TD.

Barkley, who rushed 14 times for 142 yards and three scores in the first half, surpassed 1,000 yards on the ground for the third straight season, just the second player in school history to do that.

He also broke PSU’s all-time record for rushing touchdowns. He now has 39, one more than Lydell Mitchell, the previous record-holder.

McSorley went 18-of-28 for 259 yards and two TDs in the first half when the Lions built a 42-10 lead.

Nebraska fell to 4-7.

• Barkley had managed just 142 yards on 49 carries in his three previous games, but he broke off a 65-yard touchdown run 57 seconds into the game, and by the end of the first quarter had piled up 111 yards on the ground. On a related note, Nebraska entered the game last in the Big Ten in rushing defense (200.1 yards per game).

• The first touchdown came on a run to the left, and the Nittany Lions had repeated success running in that direction behind guard Steven Gonzalez and tackle Will Fries.

• Nebraska took advantage of two Penn State special-teams breakdowns to take a 10-7 lead later in the first quarter. A short punt by the Huskers’ Caleb Lightbourn bounced off the Lions’ Zech McPhearson and was recovered by Marquel Dismuke, setting up Drew Brown’s 28-yard field goal. Then, with PSU backed up at its own 18, Blake Gillikin’s 18-yard punt gave Nebraska the ball at the Penn State 36. Tanner Lee’s completions of 17 yards to JD Spielman and 18 yards to Stanley Morgan Jr. set up a one-yard TD run by Devine Ozigbo.

• The Nittany Lions answered with touchdowns on their next five possessions, all of them on drives that consumed at least 65 yards, to take command. First McSorley’s 43-yard pass to Juwan Johnson led to Barkley’s 1-yard plunge, putting PSU ahead to stay at 14-10. Then Barkley jumpstarted an eight-play, 85-yard march with a 30-yard run — a drive that also included McSorley’s 22-yard pass to Saeed Blacknall on 3rd-and-10 — and McSorley ended it with a nine-yard run. McSorley later threw TD passes to Gesicki and DeAndre Thompkins covering 9 and 15 yards, respectively, and Barkley powered eight yards to the end zone.

• The Lions, whose point total was their highest in a first half since they put up 56 at Illinois in 2005, owned a 439-77 yardage advantage at that point.

• Nebraska cut the gap to 42-24 with two third-quarter touchdowns, on a 24-yard run by Mikale Wilbon and Lee’s 22-yard pass to De’Mornay Pierson-El, but McSorley found Gesicki for a 17-yard TD just over a minute into the fourth quarter, and backup quarterback Tommy Stevens later hit Nick Bowers for a 15-yard score.

• The Huskers added three TDs in the final 6:32, on Lee's eight-yard pass to Morgan, Wilbon's one-yard run and Lee's three-yard pass to Jack Stoll. The latter came on the game's final play. 

• Lee, who threw for 399 yards, started despite suffering a head injury in last week’s loss to Minnesota, which resulted in his placement in the concussion protocol.

• Gesicki finished with four catches for 47 yards and two scores. His 1,376 career receiving yards are an all-time record for a PSU tight end, eclipsing the previous mark of 1,343, set by Ted Kwalick (1966-68). Gesicki's 13 career TDs are also a record for someone at his position. 

• Juwan Johnson had five catches for 105 yards, the first 100-yard receiving game of his career.

• Penn State was again without offensive tackle Ryan Bates and defensive end Ryan Buchholz, each of whom missed their third straight game with a leg injury. Both were injured in the Oct. 28 loss at Ohio State. The Lions were also without linebacker Manny Bowen for the second straight week. He violated a team rule, according to coach James Franklin.

• The announced attendance was 106,722, despite intermittent showers.