James Franklin was convinced there’d be a moment Trace McSorley would break out of his shell.
Maybe during practice, after a touchdown, or during halftime — there’d be something that’d click in his redshirt sophomore signal-caller, making him an overt, dominating vocal presence.
There just had to be.
Nope, at least not yet. And Franklin has come to realize it may never happen. McSorley has stayed level-headed, never too high or too low, during his brief tenure as Penn State’s starting quarterback.
Through a frustrating 2-2 start and now a four-game winning streak that has Penn State fans beaming with a No. 12 College Football Playoff ranking, McSorley has stayed even-keeled — and his coach is happy with it.
“Trace is one of the guys that is very, very comfortable in his own skin,” Franklin said at his Tuesday press conference, “which I think is a very, very important trait.”
To be clear, McSorley isn’t shy. He’s a leader on the offense. But he’s never been a real “rah-rah” guy, as some would say. He lets his play speak for itself, and so far, that’s been more than enough.
Leading high-powered offense: Under McSorley’s direction, the Nittany Lion offense has averaged 33.6 points per game this year, third in the Big Ten behind Michigan and Ohio State. During Penn State’s four-game winning streak, that average is up to 38.3 per contest.
“We were working toward this,” McSorley said Tuesday. “I don’t think anybody is surprised by the points and yardage we’ve been able to put up. ...We’re real confident on offense.”
Without question a big part of Penn State’s success has been No. 26. Sophomore running back Saquon Barkley, named a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award this week, who has 638 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns since Penn State’s pivotal overtime win over Minnesota on Oct. 1.
But Barkley, with all the talent he has, probably doesn’t hit those ridiculous numbers without a complementary downfield passing attack. And looking with a wider scope, there’s little to no shot the Nittany Lions are sitting where they are, 6-2 with a major bowl within reach, if they’re plagued by turnovers.
It’s difficult for deep shots and staying turnover-free to co-exist.
But McSorley, his receivers and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead have made it work. McSorley, who has 20 completions of 30 yards or more this season, has seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in Penn State’s four-game winning streak. He’s also sixth nationally in yards per completion this season (14.78).
Completion percentage a concern: His completion percentage has been less-than-ideal the past month. In wins over Minnesota, Maryland, Ohio State and Purdue, McSorley’s combined completion mark is 46.2 percent. Franklin said he hopes to get McSorley’s completion percentage up to the mid-60s as he currently sits at 55.2 percent for the season. While 46.2 percent in the last four games is below average, McSorley’s coach thinks part of that mark is a byproduct of how his quarterback and the offense operates.
“I think there’s some throws that Trace wishes he had over,” Franklin said. “The other thing you have to remember is how many shots we’re taking down the field, how many defenses we’re playing that are in your face, press man on the outside.”
A tough test Saturday: McSorley will likely face plenty of those situations on Saturday night. While Iowa’s pass defense isn’t dominant (59th nationally, 223.6 passing yards per game), the Hawkeyes boast Desmond King, the 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner for the best defensive back in the country. McSorley will have to be careful dealing with the 2015 consensus first-team All-American and his knack for interceptions (eight last season).
But Franklin is confident in his signal-caller. He always has been. Recruiting him to Vanderbilt, convincing him to come to Penn State, and naming him the starter this offseason, Franklin has always stood by McSorley.
And game by game this season, the emotionally stable, big-play quarterback has given his coach reason to do so.
“Overall, he’s on schedule,” Franklin said. “We’ve been really pleased with him, not only what he’s doing on the field, but things you don’t see behind the scenes, like his leadership, approach and demeanor.
“I think this is who he is.”