Eyes on the ball: Penn State's entertaining, erratic passing game aims to stop the drops
As Penn State’s receivers track passes on the field, their coach stands on the sideline, willing his voice to drum a beat in their ears.
“I’m constantly yelling, ‘Eyes, eyes, eyes,’” Penn State receivers coach David Corley said. “It’s one of those things I continue to harp on. I’m hoping they hear my voice echoing in their heads.”
Mixing spectacular catches with frustrating drops, Penn State’s receiving corps has produced wild mood swings this season. The offense has completed two of the three longest pass plays (95 and 93 yards) in school history, but also has dropped 17 passes, the most in the Big Ten, according to Pro Football Focus.
Those drops not only have cut quarterback Trace McSorley’s completion rate by nearly 20 percent compared to last season but also have stunted series at critical moments.
New opportunity: Michigan State’s visit Saturday to Beaver Stadium brings a fresh opportunity for Penn State’s passing game to scout and deliver.
The Spartans lead the nation in rush defense, but rank last in the Big Ten against the pass, a statistic born from the way teams attack them. Michigan State is the only conference team allowing more than 300 yards passing per game, largely because it has allowed by far more attempts (220) and completions (142) than any other team.
For Penn State, a passing game with such electric ability looks to eliminate its exasperating drop tendencies.
“I believe in those guys,” head coach James Franklin said. “I believe in how we do things and how we operate. So I have a lot of confidence there.”
Good news: Penn State’s passing game received some good news when redshirt freshman KJ Hamler avoided serious injury against Ohio State. Hamler, who scored on a 93-yard play in the first half, left in the second half after being hit near the head on a play that was ruled as targeting.
Franklin said Tuesday that he expects Hamler, who leads the Big Ten in yards per reception at 23.69, to return against the Spartans.
That would help because, aside from Hamler, Penn State’s pass game has been surprisingly uneven. It has produced some wow-factor moments: DeAndre Thompkins’ diving touchdown catch against Kent State, Daniel George’s record-breaking 95-yard touchdown catch in the same game and Juwan Johnson’s NFL-worthy, one-handed grab against the Buckeyes.
Hurting McSorley's completion rate: But the dropped passes (six against Ohio State), inconsistent route-running and lapsed timing have thrown off the offense. McSorley held a 65.6-percent completion rate through five games last season, which featured running back Saquon Barkley prominently in the pass game.
Through the first five games of 2018, McSorley’s completion rate is 52.9 percent. And running back Miles Sanders has nine receptions, one-third of what Barkley had through five games in 2017.
Though McSorley has missed some throws, the drops have been a larger problem outside his control. They’ve vexed Franklin and Corley all season.
On his diving touchdown catch, for instance, Thompkins stretched his body without losing sight of the ball. Corley, Penn State’s first-year receivers coach, contrasted that with the drops.
“In a lot of instances, it’s a situation where somebody takes their eyes off the ball way too early,” Corley said. “Then there’s the picture of DeAndre laying out on the post route [against Kent State]. It’s like a textbook example of where you want a guy’s eyes to be.”
Addressing the issue: Penn State’s receivers run all the traditional drills to address dropped passes: eye-positioning, catching balls through intentional distractions, and route-running with defenders hanging on them. The coaches say they have faith that the drops will relent.
“Juwan's catch on the sideline [against Ohio State] was as good as you'll see,” Franklin said. “So we have the ability. We just have to be more consistent in all the things we do.”
Johnson, who had a handful of drops against Ohio State along with his brilliant catch, said he has discussed the situation with former Penn State players DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki.
Both went through similar patches of their careers before emerging as two of the program’s career-leading pass-catchers. “We’re going to need him more and more,” Corley said of Johnson. So the receiver paid attention.
“Those guys really helped me out, saying, it’s all part of the process,” Johnson said. “You're going to have hiccups and you're going to have bumps. That's pretty much all it is.”