For No. 4 Penn State, beating Pittsburgh ends up 'just like beating Akron'

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For No. 4 Penn State, beating Pittsburgh ends up 'just like beating Akron'

BOX SCORE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – They put up 33 points against a team that might or might not be a rival (more on that in a moment), and won by 19.

And, well, that wasn’t quite enough. Not to them.

“One of the weird things about today, when we got in the locker room, we felt as an offense we didn’t play our best football — that we had chances to put more points on the board,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said after the fourth-ranked Lions beat Pitt 33-14 on Saturday afternoon (see Observations).

There were missed opportunities, momentary struggles, long stretches when McSorley and Co. were marooned on the sidelines while the Panthers controlled the ball. At the same time, the Lions (2-0) had two one-play touchdown drives, and none of their five scoring marches lasted longer than 2:43.

“It was not like a dejected feeling,” McSorley said of the postgame mood, “because we got the win. It was one of those where, like, it didn’t feel like one where we put 33 points on the board. It’s something you like to see, almost, because you put 33 points on the board, guys are whining and down on themselves because we expected more. That’s something that I think is kind of a silver lining for us, that we can keep pushing toward that.”

McSorley finished his day 15 for 28 for 164 and three touchdowns, with one interception. He improved as he went along (9 for 13, 120 yards in the second half), which perhaps stands to reason, given that he was still pondering last year’s meeting when he took the field – one that ended with Pitt hanging on for a 42-39 victory, when he was intercepted in the end zone with 1:15 left.

“That was something, when I think of last year’s game, that stands out a lot,” he said.

As for the larger debate — the rivalry-or-not-a-rivalry discussion that has been beaten to death — coach James Franklin rekindled it during his postgame remarks by saying, “I know last year for their win it was like the Super Bowl, but for us this was just like beating Akron (by a 52-0 count in the opener).”

That dropped a few jaws in the media roo and led to the inevitable follow-up question about how such a statement might play in Pittsburgh.

“I’ve been saying for two years that each win is like the Super Bowl for us,” he said. “You can interpret it however you want. Last week, we beat Akron and it was a great win. This week, we beat Pittsburgh and it was a great win. This win is no more significant than last week.”

Then there was the take of safety Marcus Allen, who contributed a game-high 12 tackles and a safety to Saturday’s effort.

“It’s one game at time,” he said. “We approached this game like every other game, but no one’s naïve. Guys had, like, grudges, a chip on their shoulder, coming into this game.”

The crowd of 109,898, the seventh-largest in Beaver Stadium history and the largest since 2009, was in full froth as well. McSorley had a look around as he emerged from the south tunnel beforehand, something he said he always does.

“Today it was one of those you walked out (and said), ‘Man there’s a lot of people here,’ ” he said.

He threw the first of two touchdown passes to tight end Mike Gesicki after Grant Haley’s interception four plays into the game, then found Gesicki for a 10-yard TD on the Lions’ third possession. But McSorley was just 6 for 15 for 44 yards and a pick in the first half, and as Franklin said, missing “some throws … that he normally doesn’t.”

McSorley admitted to being “just a little bit jittery” — that his feet weren’t settled, that he had a hard time finding his groove.

“I think just kind of the emotions of everything coming into today got the best of me at the beginning,” he said.

Then there was the matter of Pitt’s ball-hoggery. The Panthers’ first-half advantage in time of possession was 21:51-8:09, but they nonetheless trailed, 14-3 — something that called to mind a game PSU’s great 1994 team played against Northwestern.

That day the first-half time advantage belonged to the Wildcats, 24:21-5:39. The score? Penn State 38, Northwestern 3. The final was 45-17, and someone was left to marvel afterward about a Lions team that seemingly didn’t even need the ball to score.

It kind of seemed that way Saturday, too. Penn State added to its lead courtesy of McSorley’s 46-yard TD pass to Saquon Barkley early in the third quarter — a play on which Barkley found himself singled up against linebacker Saleem Brightwell – and scored again when Barkley plowed eight yards into the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter.

That made it 28-6. The Panthers crept within 1 but could get no closer.

Barkley was solid — 14 carries for 88 yards, four catches for 45 — but the Lions were outgained 342-312 and out-possessed, 38:20-21:40.

The latter stat, Franklin said, is “not as big of a factor as it’s been in the past, but for us we are mainly worried about the scoreboard.”

And in that regard, Saturday was a rousing success. But these guys want more. Always more.

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."