McGONIGAL: Ranked No. 86 in nation, Penn State's passing game yet to take flight in 2018

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
  • After two games, Penn State's passing attack is ranked No. 86 in the nation.
  • The Nittany Lions' receivers have been plagued by numerous dropped passes.
  • The Lions' passing game has traditionally gotten off to slow starts in recent seasons.

Penn State’s passing game — even after the Nittany Lions throttled Pitt by 45 points — is not where it needs to be. And fifth-year quarterback Trace McSorley knows it.

Penn State coach James Franklin, left, talks with quarterback Trace McSorley during the second half of Saturday night's 51-6 win over Pitt. McSorley and Franklin and looking for ways to improve the Nittany Lions' passing game, which has struggled at times over the first two games of the season.  (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

“We’re just a little bit off right now,” the Heisman Trophy contender said Wednesday. “It’s not going to be something that’s going to be fixed overnight.”

The Nittany Lions are averaging 204 passing yards per game through two weeks. It’s an incredibly small sample size, but ranks 86th in the country, behind the likes of Akron, Buffalo, Temple, Florida International and even Saturday’s opponent, Kent State. Penn State’s 11.66 yards per completion average comes in at 82nd, behind next week’s foe, Big Ten punching bag Illinois.

Now, McSorley and the Nittany Lions dealt with horrific weather at Pitt last weekend, and a Miles Sanders-led running attack recorded 205 and 211 yards against Appalachian State and the Panthers, respectively. Those two factors cut into the passing game production.

Still, McSorley isn’t happy. He said Wednesday that everyone is “understanding what we want to do,” but it’s just a matter of putting all that together on the field.

So, why are the Nittany Lions “a little bit off” two weeks into the season? What needs to change against Kent State and moving forward into the Big Ten slate? Let’s take a look.

Drops: Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins have at least six combined drops to start the season. Johnson muffed an easy first-half first down and let a fourth-quarter, 40-yard gain sail through his arms against App State. The 6-foot-4 target also missed a 20-yard catch at Pitt, one play after Thompkins dropped a 27-yard touchdown — one of three drops on the day for the fifth-year senior.

Those six plays affect McSorley’s 52.3 completion percentage and 5.75 yards per attempt through two games.

Penn State hasn’t seen a significant drop issue like this since Mike Gesicki in 2015, and head coach James Franklin admitted a couple weeks ago that the then-sophomore tight end probably played earlier than he should have. These mistakes are coming from a possible early-round NFL draft pick and a grad student who is no longer listed as an outright starter. Thompkins and Brandon Polk now share an “OR” on this week’s three-deep.

It’s concerning that these issues are present, but it’s early. Johnson and Thompkins are experienced enough that Franklin has the “utmost confidence” in them to work through it. And McSorley said everyone in Penn State’s wideout room “still looks up to them.”

“It doesn’t matter that they might not have gotten off to the start they wanted,” the quarterback said. “They’re still the leaders in that room. ... They know we have confidence in them that they’re going to pick it up and get going.”

Added Franklin: “We’re going to look back at the end of the year and say, ‘Wow, what huge years these guys had.’ I’m very, very confident that that’s going to happen.”

Tight end production: Replacing Gesicki was always a question mark entering 2018. Preseason talk of a tight end rotation alone hinted at that. And so far, the tight ends have not lived up to the scoring standards set by Gesicki.

In terms of yards and receptions, the trio of Jonathan Holland, Danny Dalton and Pat Freiermuth have actually been fine. The three tight ends have combined to catch eight balls for 85 yards. Through the first two weeks of 2017, Gesicki had 10 receptions for 97 yards.

However, the real difference between Gesicki and Penn State’s current trio lies in the red zone. Of Gesicki’s 10 catches, four were touchdowns — scores of two, eight, 10 and 13 yards. Meanwhile, in 23 plays in the red zone this year, McSorley has targeted a tight end once — a five-yard catch by Freiermuth.

Again, two games is a small sample size. But the gap between Gesicki and the rest is obvious.

Traditional slow start: Believe it or not, this isn’t a new issue for the Nittany Lions. In the first two weeks of 2017, McSorley threw for 280 and 164 yards against Akron and Pitt, respectively. Over the remaining nine contests, he averaged 347.3 yards per game.

McSorley’s completion percentage (62.3 percent) and yards per completion (13.45) in 2017’s opening two games are better than this year’s numbers (52.3 completion percentage, 11.0 yards per completion). But rust is a thing. Growing into the season — especially with a new offensive coordinator in Ricky Rahne — is a built-in factor.

McSorley, as is customary of a captain, heaped most of the blame on himself, “not being accurate, not putting the balls in the right spots.” But more often than not, McSorley is putting the ball where it needs to be.

For the passing game to click, it’s a matter of Johnson and Thompkins bouncing back. It’s a matter of the tight ends creating separation and becoming a red-zone factor. And it’s McSorley getting comfortable with a set of receivers not named Saquon, DaeSean and Gesicki.

History shows that McSorley and Penn State’s passing offense need just a little time to jell. With the Big Ten slate a week away, they’re hoping that time comes sooner rather than later.