From Penn State’s point totals through five games, it’s difficult to detect any difference from the high-flying unit that helped the Nittany Lions win 11 games and a Big Ten championship a year ago.
But the success of Penn State, and its quarterback, have taken on different forms thus far in 2017.
Instead of a steady stream of all-or-nothing deep balls that were the subject of much discussion throughout the offseason, Trace McSorley has started the year somewhat conservatively in the passing game.
McSorley’s mark of 16.13 yards per completion, one that led the FBS last season, has been reduced to a 12.88 total that ranks 50th this year.
While it’s unclear whether the early drop is the result of a distinct shift in offensive attitude on the part of coordinator Joe Moorhead, when asked whether opposing defenses had been placing an emphasis on eliminating passes down the field, McSorley acknowledged that they had at times.
“I think it is a little bit accurate,” McSorley said, “especially if you watch the Iowa game. They definitely were playing further off and taking away some of those deep shots.”
Heading to Evanston, Illinois to take on Northwestern on Saturday, McSorley and company will encounter a defense he said compares to that of the Hawkeyes in the sense that it focuses on limiting explosive plays. Instead, McSorley said the Wildcats are often content to give up space on underneath routes and rally to the ball.
For him, this creates more of an opportunity to string together long scoring drives — something the Nittany Lions did with far less frequency a season ago compared to now.
“It’s definitely something that we’re going to have to be able to execute and take the plays that are there,” McSorley said. “Take advantage of what they give us, even if it’s not a big, deep shot or having that explosive play. It’s putting together drives and maintaining them.”
Somewhat remarkably, McSorley does have eight passes on the season which have gone for a gain of 30 yards of more. Five of those, however, have come via short passes to Saquon Barkley, who has often made things happen in the passing game after the catch in the early going of this season.
Looking back at his opportunities to take that deep shot, though, McSorley feels as though the Nittany Lions have failed to take advantage of open windows at times.
“Teams have definitely put an emphasis on protecting against it,” he said, “but we just haven’t been able to connect on some of them that have been there.”
McSorley explained that he’s not concerned about the lack of deep connections because the offense is still creating opportunities to make plays.
His passer rating is nearly identical to what it was a year ago at 156.4, and his completion percentage is up from 57.9 to 65.6 percent.
For his part, James Franklin believes his signal-caller is better than he was at this point a season ago.
“I don't think it's even close,” he said. “In every category that you can look at, if you compare him to the last five, he's pretty much on par. You can make an argument better in some categories. If you compare it to the first five games of last year, but he's by far ahead.”