Tommy Stevens

Penn State crushes Maryland to finish regular season 'a bittersweet 10-2'

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Penn State crushes Maryland to finish regular season 'a bittersweet 10-2'

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Penn State’s regular season closed Saturday with a 66-3 embarrassment of Maryland (see observations).

The Nittany Lions are 10-2, with a high-profile bowl game ahead. They have outscored their last three opponents, 157-53, and all 12 by a whopping 499-186 margin.

Yet none of that can obscure a certain sense of unfulfillment — that a play here or a play there in the losses to Ohio State (by one) and Michigan State (by three), and their season would look very different.

“That’s the tough thing,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “It’s 10-2, but it’s almost a bittersweet 10-2 because you know it could have been better and we wish it had been. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get it done in a couple games this year.”

He went on to say he and his teammates are happy with 10-2. Really, they are. It comes on the heels of last year’s 11-3 finish, and coach James Franklin was quick to remind reporters that on only two other occasions have the Lions enjoyed back-to-back double-digit victory seasons since joining the Big Ten in 1993.

He also refused to ponder what might have been. Maybe that was posturing. Maybe that was genuine. Maybe it helps him sleep at night.

Whatever the case, that’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.

“I’m excited about being 1-0 tonight, and I’m excited about 10 wins,” he said. “I’m going to focus on the positive, not the woulda/coulda/shouldas. Because we can’t affect them, right?”

Fair enough. But that will not stop the folks in the stands or the press box from playing the what-if game. From wondering what might have happened if a fourth-quarter punt had not been blocked at Ohio State, or if there had not been a three-and-a-half-hour lightning delay at Michigan State.

Franklin acknowledged the latter game was “a mess,” but emphasized that that was no excuse.

“We didn’t play well enough,” he said. “It was a perfect storm of issues.”

That was true right up to the point that safety Marcus Allen drew a roughing-the-passer penalty, allowing the Spartans to move into position for the decisive field goal at the gun.

Speaking of what-ifs.

Another played out Saturday. Tommy Stevens, McSorley’s backup and a guy often employed in the so-called “slash” role this season — i.e., quarterback-slash-running back-slash-receiver — ran for the day’s first touchdown when he was inserted in the backfield with McSorley and star running back Saquon Barkley. 

Stevens also threw a pass and caught one in the first half, then replaced McSorley for good late in the third quarter. In all, he ran 12 times for 113 yards and three scores, went 3 of 7 for 11 yards and another TD and had that lone reception.

Stevens now has rushed for four scores, passed for three and caught passes resulting in two this season. Yet he didn’t play in either loss (as well as three other games), a what-if unto itself: Couldn’t he, perhaps, have tipped the balance in PSU’s favor?

Asked if he might have been chomping at the bit when the Lions faced the Buckeyes or Spartans, Stevens took the diplomatic route.

“It’s in the past,” he said. “I’ve gotten past that.”

Franklin said the Lions typically have a “high red zone package” for Stevens, and that offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead inserts him as he sees fit — that it depends on down and distance, flow of the game, etc.

“We’ve got a pretty good quarterback in Trace McSorley,” Franklin said. “We’ve got a damn good quarterback in our backup quarterback, in Tommy Stevens. But you have to be careful. Sometimes when you get in a two-quarterback system it can mess up the flow. I think we’ve handled it pretty well this year, and I could see this package continuing to grow for us.”

The team’s growth continues as well.

“I like where we’re at, but I still think we’ve got a lot of room for improvement,” he said. “I still think we can get better. That’s still the exciting part of all of this.”

They will need to get better, given the fast company they keep in the Big Ten East. Also given the personnel losses ahead. Foundational players like Allen, linebacker Jason Cabinda and tight end Mike Gesicki will be gone next year. Barkley probably will be, too.

“So,” Franklin said, “we’ve just got to continue scraping and clawing and scratching for every little inch that we can find because to get where we want to go, it’s still going to be a slow, steady crawl. And I’d make the argument that it’s going to be harder, these next steps, than what we’ve already done. Should be an interesting ride.”

It’s the only what-if he would allow himself — the one about what might lie ahead.

The rest of us, meanwhile, can afford to take a backward glance.

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."

Tommy Stevens shines at QB during Penn State's Blue-White Game

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Tommy Stevens shines at QB during Penn State's Blue-White Game

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State's Blue-White Game seldom surprises. OK, just about never.

It is a nice little exercise to cap spring practice. The stars mostly sit. The subs mostly shine. The plays are vanilla, the final score forgettable. As long as the lads avoid serious injury, the coaches are happy.

Saturday's game didn’t offer any revelations, either.

It did offer this reminder, however: Tommy Stevens can play. 

He is the backup quarterback to Trace McSorley, who excelled last season and is on the early Heisman watchlists this year. Yet Stevens, who will be a redshirt sophomore this fall, continues to offer evidence that the Lions would scarcely skip a beat if he had to play (always a possibility, given the punishment McSorley tends to take).

On Saturday Stevens elevated a drab affair to palatability by going 17-for-24 for 216 yards and three touchdowns while playing a half in relief of McSorley, as the Blue beat the White, 26-0.

The asterisks, of course, are many. Stevens was facing overmatched backups, and the quarterbacks were not allowed to be touched (though Philadelphia native Shareef Miller, amid a two-sack day, accidentally leveled reserve QB Billy Fessler with a blindside rush in the first half, on a play where he appeared to be pushed from behind).

All that taken into account, Stevens looked confident and sure of himself, checking down to running back Andre Robinson for a nine-yard touchdown in the third quarter and firing darts to Brandon Polk and Juwan Johnson for respective TDs covering 31 and 15 yards in the fourth.

"What you (media) guys are starting to see more of, we've been seeing in practice," coach James Franklin said. "I think we've got two quarterbacks that we can win with, and you have to have that."

The Langhorne native has been saying that for a while now. He said it heading into last year – that there was a true competition between Stevens and McSorley for the No. 1 job, even though McSorley had seen game action in 2015 and Stevens had not.

Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead met individually with the two quarterbacks shortly before last season and informed them of their decision. Then McSorley led the Lions to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth.

The 6-4, 224-pound Stevens appeared in seven games and actually finished as the team's third-leading rusher, with 198 yards on 21 attempts (9.4 a pop). He also scored twice but tried just three passes, completing two.

Franklin nonetheless maintained this was a plug-and-play situation, that he would have been comfortable putting Stevens out there at any moment. And Stevens, to his credit, never sulked.

"I just try to come to work, prepare myself and just be ready for an opportunity when it shows up," he said.

That's not an easy role to accept. Stevens, an Indianapolis native, had been a finalist for the Gatorade Player of the Year in his home state his final high school season (2014). Nobody goes anywhere expecting to sit.

"As you might imagine, it's tough at times," he said, "but at the same time, I try not to make this about me. I don't want it to be about me. It's just coming in to do my job, help this team win – just do whatever I can."

Anything and everything.

"Obviously you didn't see a whole lot of me (last) season," he said, "but some of the guys that were running with the (second string) at the beginning of the season then moved up and took starting roles, so I took pride in trying to get those guys prepared because it's not just me that’s got to be prepared to step in."

His spring has been such that he shared the Frank Patrick Total Commitment Award with McSorley and backup running back Josh McPhearson. Everybody realizes what Stevens has been asked to do, and what he might yet be asked to do.

The examples of backups coming to the fore at other schools are many. Just three years ago, Ohio State won a national championship with its third-stringer, Cardale Jones.

Franklin, for his part, fretted about who might fill the No. 3 role for the Lions this season, as Fessler is locked in a battle with Jake Zembiec and walk-on Michael Shuster.

"I think you really need three," the coach said. "I think we're short."

Not for long. One highly regarded recruit, Sean Clifford, will arrive this summer. An even more highly regarded prospect, Justin Fields, is committed for 2018.

But for now, there is McSorley, and there is Stevens. 

The latter committed to Indiana in January 2014, then flipped to PSU 10 months later when the Lions lost another QB recruit, Brandon Wimbush, to Notre Dame.

Stevens enrolled early, redshirted, then got a taste of things in ‘16. And now he and McSorley appear virtually interchangeable.

"I had to be disciplined (last year)," Stevens said. "I had to go to work every day, be prepared because you never know. You never know what's going to happen."

That still holds true.