COLLINS: Trace McSorley, Penn State's passing game takes major step back during 2018

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)

Trace McSorley doesn’t want to hear excuses.

Rutgers defensive back Avery Young, top, tries to deflect a pass from Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, not pictured, intended for wide receiver Cam Sullivan-Brown during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Piscataway, N.J. Young was called for a pass interference penalty on the play. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

He doesn’t think they’re particularly germane to the problems. He doesn’t think they’re necessarily constructive to the solution, either.

As Penn State marches toward its final regular season game next week, there are myriad ways anyone can look at what has gone down with this program in 2018. It has taken step backs and steps forward. The Lions are at least a contender for a third consecutive New Year’s Six bowl, but they have also shown some glaring weaknesses. Perhaps the most surprising is McSorley hasn’t been able to get the passing game going to anywhere near the rate of success or level of precision it enjoyed in the past few seasons.

On an overcast Saturday in New Jersey, with Thanksgiving in the offing and the homestretch looking much more favorable for the Nittany Lions than its rough-and-tumble midseason schedule did, Penn State did what everyone expected.

It beat Rutgers. It dominated defensively. It did enough offensively to ensure it never trailed in a 20-7 triumph.

Too much of a struggle: Yet, the predominant feeling is that all of it seemed like far too much of a struggle against a Scarlet Knights team that hasn’t won since Sept. 1 and chalked the 10th loss of the season onto its ledger before dinner time.

For McSorley, who broke Penn State’s all-time quarterback wins record in the process, there was no use denying what everyone can see. No sense making excuses for what everyone knows. Penn State ran the ball well enough against a Rutgers defense that entered the game 119th in the nation against the rush. But it continued to struggle making big plays in the passing game, as McSorley continues to try to find some sort of rhythm with a receiving corps suddenly loaded with freshmen.

“It’s a change, but you know, we’re now, what, 11 games into the season?” McSorley said with a shrug. “At this point, it’s not anything that should be too crazy.”

For sure, he’s battling through injury issues — particularly with his knee. It’s absolutely fair to point out McSorley hasn’t been as dynamic a playmaker without Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki and Saeed Blacknall stretching the field for him as they did over the past two seasons when Penn State’s offense looked like one of the most dynamic in the nation.

Recent issues: McSorley threw for just 183 yards against Rutgers, and for the third time in four weeks, he threw more incompletions than completions. Penn State hasn’t thrown for more than 200 yards since Oct. 20 at Indiana, a stretch of four consecutive games below that mark.

It’s Penn State’s worst string of passing games since going below 200 five consecutive games in November 2014. The day after that streak reached five, Penn State fired its offensive coordinator, John Donovan.

The struggles are resulting in stalled drives, a much less explosive offense and defenses more consistently willing to be aggressive at the line of scrimmage, which is inhibiting running back Miles Sanders’ ability to break big plays.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley takes a moment to himself prior to an NCAA college football game against Rutgers, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Piscataway, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

McSorley's accuracy a problem: Frankly, McSorley wasn’t accurate enough Saturday.

“I’m probably tensing up too much, probably trying to aim it more than I am trying to throw it,” McSorley said. “I’m trying to put it in the perfect spot every single time and not just throwing it like I know how. It’s something I have to get back to.”

He threw far behind an open K.J. Hamler on three occasions Saturday. Once, Hamler got wide open heading toward the pylon, and McSorley fired the pass high over his head and onto the sideline. Sanders ran a terrific wheel route in the second half, and McSorley overthrew him. He had DeAndre Thompkins, also in the second half, beating a Rutgers defensive back on a post route, and overthrew him, too. In fairness, it’s as likely that Thompkins had trouble picking the ball up early enough to make an adjustment on his route.

For those who say McSorley has simply not been able to get used to the younger receivers yet, it’s just as fair to point out he has struggled with the veterans, too.

“I do think we all get separation,” Hamler said of the young receivers. “It doesn’t have to be a big amount. It just has to be a little bit. But we have to work on making those contested catches, going up for those 50-50 balls and stuff like that.”

The 50-50 balls aren't working: That’s a good point. Remember last summer, when then-offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead bashed the doubters who suggested McSorley spent most of 2016 throwing passes deep to speedy, tall, athletic receivers and simply hoped they would come down with the throw? Remember Moorhead saying there was a method to that madness, that they were more like 80-20 or 70-30 balls, because McSorley was picking out matchups?

Well, they’re more like true 50-50 balls this year, and those aren’t chances worth taking.

“I thought in the running game, we did some good things. But we’re still a little off in the passing game,” head coach James Franklin conceded. “We have to get that cleaned up. We’re going to have to emphasize some 7-on-7 (drills) and some other things in practice. But it’s pressure sometimes. It’s missed throws sometimes. We’re just a little bit off, and that has been a storyline this year.”

Running out of time to improve: Here’s the issue, though: It’s November, and it’s late. This time next week, Penn State will be looking toward bowl practices.

Franklin said he’s confident the Nittany Lions could turn things around in the finale against Maryland. However, there should be plenty of emphasis on the “could” part of that statement.

You know what they say about looking and walking like a duck.

Penn State’s pass offense has been mediocre for so long it seems fair to suggest Penn State’s pass offense is mediocre. Even when Hamilton, Gesicki and Blacknall walked out the door after the Fiesta Bowl in December, it didn’t seem feasible things would take this significant a turn south.

Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.