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."

No. 10 Penn State goes off in 4th quarter to rout Illinois

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No. 10 Penn State goes off in 4th quarter to rout Illinois

BOX SCORE

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Miles Sanders set career highs by rushing for 200 yards and three touchdowns, Trace McSorley threw for three TDs and ran for a personal-best 92 yards, and No. 10 Penn State scored 35 points in the fourth quarter to pull away for a 63-24 victory over Illinois on Friday night.

The Nittany Lions (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) broke this one open after getting all they could handle from a team showing signs of a turnaround in coach Lovie Smith's third season.

Penn State fell behind by three early in the third before Sanders scored on a 48-yard run and put away Illinois (2-2, 0-1) with two touchdowns in the opening minute of the fourth.

McSorley threw a 16-yard TD to Juwan Johnson on the first play of the quarter. Ian Johnson intercepted Illinois' M.J. Rivers, and McSorley hit KJ Hamler with a 21-yarder on the next play, making it 42-24.

Sanders easily surpassed his previous highs of 118 yards and two TDs. He had 113 yards and two scores in the first half alone.

McSorley showed why he is a Heisman Trophy hopeful, eclipsing his previous rushing high of 81 yards against Maryland in 2016. The senior also completed 12 of 19 passes for 160 yards with an interception.

Ricky Slade added a 61-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, and the Nittany Lions racked up 591 yards.

Rivers, a true freshman, was 17 of 28 for 149 yards, a touchdown and an interception in his second start with AJ Bush nursing a hamstring injury.

Reggie Corbin ran for 87 yards. Mike Epstein finished with 73after back-to-back 100-yard rushing games.

Sanders broke a tackle and plowed through three defenders near the goal line for a 14-yard touchdown that gave Penn State a 7-0 lead.

Illinois tied it on a 2-yard run by Corbin. Then the Nittany Lions scored back-to-back touchdowns and looked ready to blow it open.

Sanders scored from the 2 after the Illini's Sydney Brown got flagged for interference on an overthrown pass intended for Hamler in the end zone. McSorley then threw a 5-yard TD to Pat Freiermuth, who skidded into the end zone as he lost his footing, to make it 21-7.

But a 51-yard run by Corbin set up a 6-yard touchdown pass from Rivers to Ricky Smalling, after the Illini's Daniel Barker fumbled a reception near the goal line, to make it a seven-point game midway through the second quarter.

Illinois' Delano Ware intercepted a deep pass by McSorley into double coverage with about 30 seconds left in the half when Penn State could have opted to run out the clock. That led to a 42-yard field goal by Chase McLaughlin as time expired, making it 21-17.

The takeaway

Penn State: Though they didn't put this one away until the fourth, the Nittany Lions got another lopsided win after outscoring Pittsburgh and Kent State by a combined 114-16.

Illinois: Whether Bush returns to the lineup or not, Rivers is showing he could be a major contributor for the Illini.

Up next

Penn State: Hosts No. 4 Ohio State next Saturday.

Illinois: Visits Rutgers on Oct. 6.

Penn State overcomes slow start, dominates Pittsburgh

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Penn State overcomes slow start, dominates Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH -- Trace McSorley threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as No. 13 Penn State pulled away for a 51-6 victory over sloppy Pittsburgh on Saturday night.

KJ Hamler ran 32 yards for a score and hauled in a 14-yard touchdown pass from McSorley as the Nittany Lions (2-0) bounced back from an opening week scare against Appalachian State to dominate their 99th meeting with the Panthers (1-1).

McSorley finished 14 of 30 for 145 yards in the rain at soggy Heinz Field, giving him a measure of redemption. Two years ago, Pitt edged the Nittany Lions at home, a loss that ultimately cost Penn State a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The memory stuck with McSorley, who had a far different feeling this time around.

"I think it's something, it might have fueled me a little bit more knowing we were returning here and had an opportunity to get that bad taste out of our mouths and things like that," McSorley said. "It's a lot sweeter, able to leave the field with a good victory tonight."

Miles Sanders ran for 118 yards for the Nittany Lions, DeAndre Thompson returned a punt 39 yards for a touchdown and Penn State limited Pitt to just 89 yards in the second half.

"We played really clutch defense," Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. "So I think we made some really good strides."

There are no plans for the rivalry to continue beyond next year's game at Beaver Stadium.

Considering how things went in the second half that might not be a bad thing for either side. Penn State's margin of victory was the third-largest by either team in a series that dates to 1893. The chants of "We Are ... Penn State" rang throughout the stadium in the final minutes.

Pitt senior Qadree Ollison ran for 119 yards and a 13-yard score for Pitt, but went nowhere after halftime. Neither did the Panthers. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett struggled in the steady rain, completing just 9 of 18 passes for 55 yards. Pickett also ran for 30 yards, but spent most of the night under heavy pressure. He was sacked four times and took a handful of jarring hits when he was able to scramble for positive yardage.

"Ultimately, everything lays right on my chest," Panther coach Pat Narduzzi said. "I'll take it all. We obviously didn't have them ready to go in any capacity: offensively, defensively or special teams."

The blowout finish seemed unlikely late in the first half. Penn State led just 7-6 with a minute to go before Pitt began self-destructing. Punter Kirk Christodoulou dropped a snap and the Nittany Lions took over in Pitt territory. McSorley needed just three plays to find Hamler to put the Nittany Lions up 14-6 at the break.

It was all Penn State after that. McSorley scored on a 4-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter, a Pitt penalty in the end zone resulted in a safety minutes later, and when Thompson took a punt at the 39 and veered to his left to race untouched to the end zone, the Nittany Lions were firmly in control.

Pitt did plenty to help Penn State pull away. The Panthers were flagged 14 times for 116 yards -- including an unsportsmanlike call on Narduzzi -- turned it over three times and provided no response when the Nittany Lions got serious.

"I've never seen so many penalties in one game," Narduzzi said. "It starts with my 15 yarder. But 14 penalties . embarrassing. There were some good calls, too. I'm not saying the officiating was bad. We just had some stuff that just snowballed on us. It starts with me."