Trace McSorley

No 2. Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: Defensive struggle with huge stakes

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NBC Sports Philadelphia

No 2. Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: Defensive struggle with huge stakes

No. 2 Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) vs. No. 19 Michigan (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten)
Beaver Stadium, State College
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC

Scouting Penn State
The second-ranked Nittany Lions were idle last week, after beating Northwestern, 31-7, on Oct. 7, as Trace McSorley went 25 for 34 for 245 yards and two touchdowns. McSorley, taking advantage of a defense stacked in an attempt to limit the effectiveness of star running back Saquon Barkley, completed a school-record 15 straight passes in one stretch. Barkley, while held to 75 yards on the ground, did break off a 53-yard touchdown run, one of two scores he had in the game. He leads the nation in all-purpose yards per game (217.0). The Lions, who are also atop the nation in scoring defense (9.0), are led on that side of the ball by linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen with 40 and 35 tackles, respectively. Fourteen players have had a hand in a sack, and 26 have been part of a tackle for loss.

Scouting Michigan
The No. 19 Wolverines beat Indiana 27-20 in overtime last week, on a 25-yard run by Karan Higdon. Higdon finished with 25 carries for 200 yards and three TDs, all career highs, and to date has rushed for 401 yards (5.7 a carry). Quarterback John O’Korn, who has taken over for the injured Wilton Speight, was just 10 for 20 for 58 yards against the Hoosiers. He has clicked on 54.9 percent of his throws, for 563 yards and a touchdown, and has been picked off four times. UM has allowed the fewest yards per game in the FBS this season (223.8), and while middle linebacker Devin Bush is fourth in the Big Ten in tackles (49) and second in sacks (5), the key to the Wolverines’ D is Maurice Hurst, an eyeblink-quick defensive tackle.

History
Michigan leads the all-time series 13-7 and has won the last three meetings. The Wolverines routed the Lions last year in Ann Arbor, 49-10, in the most one-sided game ever between the two teams. PSU has gone 15-1 since.

Storyline to watch
It’s pretty simple: In a game that has “defensive struggle” written all over it, which offense can gain traction? And which team can avoid a killer mistake? 

What’s at stake
A PSU victory sets up a showdown against No. 6 Ohio State next weekend in Columbus.

Prediction
Penn State 21, Michigan 13.

Maturing Trace McSorley effective with short, quick passes

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USA Today Images

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."

Saquon Barkley far from No. 3 Penn State's only weapon in win over Northwestern

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Saquon Barkley far from No. 3 Penn State's only weapon in win over Northwestern

BOX SCORE

EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern did all it could to keep Saquon Barkley from dominating the stat sheet Saturday afternoon, but it hardly fazed Barkley’s teammates.

Penn State’s stingy defense nearly posted another shutout and quarterback Trace McSorley made the most of the extra attention Barkley got by throwing for 250 yards and a touchdown to keep the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions perfect with a 31-7 victory (see observations).

The running back and Heisman Trophy candidate clearly is a huge part of Penn State’s attack, but the Lions spent most of the afternoon showing he’s hardly the only part.

The national leaders in scoring defense (9.0 points per game) held the Wildcats scoreless until the game was far out of reach and sent Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) into a three-week stretch that could decide whether it’ll get a chance to defend its conference title.

After the coming bye week, the Lions welcome Michigan to Happy Valley, then visit Ohio State a week later. 

Coach James Franklin wouldn’t take questions about Michigan but seemed pleased with his team’s performance as it gets ready for its biggest game of the season.

“Can’t give our defense enough credit,” Franklin said after the unit had three takeaways and four sacks.

Cornerback Armani Oruwariye set the tone with an early interception that stymied a long Northwestern drive and defensive end Shaka Toney (two sacks) forced a fumble that ended another Wildcats possession. The hosts never threatened again until the game was well in hand.

“We have a standard,” Oruwariye said. “In the second half, I don’t know how many three-and-outs we had (five), but it was a lot.

“For them to even get a first down, we were pissed off, so we came back and responded.”

Penn State started the day 13th nationally in total defense, 13 spots behind No. 7 Michigan. Safe to say the matchup could be a draw on that side of the ledger.

McSorley showed, however, that stopping Barkley won’t be enough if teams hope to upend the Lions.

He set a new school record with 15 straight completions spanning the first three quarters (one better than Kerry Collins in 1994) and passed the Lions out of trouble several times after Barkley was bottled up by a Northwestern defense clearly keying on the running back.

“Our receivers were doing a great job getting open against the zone,” he said. “We felt really good with our preparation this week. At that point, it was just about executing.”

McSorley, who threw for 245 yards in a 25-for-34 afternoon, also ran 12 times when holes opened up. 

Barkley was a blocker almost as much as he was a ball carrier early in the game but still showed some electricity when he found a hole and darted untouched for a 53-yard third-quarter touchdown that turned the game into a rout.

“We’re definitely a lot more balanced. We’re not having those games where we’re throwing for 300 and running for 40 or rushing for 250 and throwing for 75. We had games last year like that,” McSorley said.

“It helps everyone get into the flow of the game better because as an offense we feel like we can be more successful.”

Barkley finished the day with 75 net yards on 16 carries and caught a pair of passes for nine yards. He had 200 or more all-purpose yards in four of Penn State’s first five games.

“The thing that’s great is we have enough weapons,” Franklin said. “We’re going to have to throw the ball. We’re in a situation where it’s almost like you’ve got to pick your poison.

“I get it. People are going to try everything they possibly can to not allow Saquon Barkley to beat you, but it creates a lot of opportunities for other guys.”

And that might be the most encouraging factor as the Nittany Lions prepare for the Wolverines. The best offense probably wins that game and Penn State seems intent on proving its offense is much more than just Barkley.

Michigan has won three straight over the Lions, including last season’s 49-10 blowout that left the only blemish on Penn State’s Big Ten record.

Another bit of positive news for the offense: Tight end Mike Gisicki, who left last week’s win over Indiana with an injury, was back on the field and had a pair of catches against Northwestern. Franklin said he expects the senior to be ready for Michigan.

No Penn State players appeared to suffer injuries during Saturday's game.