He was hit hard by a charging Maryland linebacker just before the 30-yard line, which meant Trace McSorley probably wasn’t going to have the first down for Penn State at the moment of impact.
He got it anyway, plus three more yards, because McSorley never seems to run out of new ways to keep the Nittany Lions offense moving.
He was on the move again Saturday, scrambling around for 81 yards on a day that allowed Penn State running back Saquon Barkley to get to 202 yards and the Lions to pile up five touchdowns and a field goal in a 38-14 victory over Maryland.
That wasn’t likely unless McSorley started using his legs.
Oh, Penn State’s first-year starting quarterback uses his head plenty too.
“He changed the play, like, five times,” Lions tight end Mike Gesicki said of a handoff to Barkley who went for a 45-yard TD run and a 24-14 Penn State lead with 15 seconds remaining in the first half. “He changed it, changed it, changed it. He knew the right one.”
And everyone knows that although McSorley has yet to prove he can stand in the pocket and pick apart defenses with passes, he can still sling it every now and again. As a reminder, he hit DeAndre Thompkins with a 70-yard touchdown strike as time ran out in the third quarter to put the game away for Penn State, 31-14.
But the most striking thing about McSorley right now is the way he brings a new dimension to the rushing game.
Teams can’t bring an army of defenders stacked up to stop Barkley anymore.
“Trace has been doing his thing,” said Lions offensive lineman Brendan Mahon, who was forced to switch from left tackle to right when Andrew Nelson was apparently lost for the season with a leg injury. “Now Maryland (had) to play both — the run and the pass.”
Sometimes, Maryland didn’t play either very well.
Like on the opening drive, when McSorley opened with a 21-yard pass to DaeSean Hamilton, handed to Barkley for a 17-yard run, took off on a 17-yard run of his own and wrapped up the 84-yard scoring march with a 5-yard touchdown toss to Gesicki.
“I think it really helped us,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of McSorley’s ability to push the ball down the field with his legs, “getting us more diversified in the running game. It’s one more thing for them to defend. It’s frustrating on defense when you stop the run, you stop the pass and then the guy takes off on a 15-yard run. Or even a six-yard run.”
This new element has helped Barkley, bottled up through most of the first five games, run to daylight.
“Trace did an unbelievable job,” Barkley said, “using his feet, getting first downs and keeping drives alive.”
This sudden weapon came alive last week, when McSorley took off on a last-minute 26-yard run to set up a tying field goal at the end of regulation. Then he worked the zone read to perfection while freezing a lineman long enough for Barkley to race 25 yards into the end zone for the touchdown that beat Minnesota.
Since then, the Penn State coaching staff has been preaching to McSorley to keep going with the keepers.
“They were saying if he play calls for it, to do it, don’t be afraid of doing that,” McSorley said. “If the read tells you to pull it, pull it.”
Why did McSorley and Penn State wait until now to pull out this sort of deception?
Where was the quarterback daringly darting down the field against Pitt and Michigan, two earlier losses where a little trickery may have gone a long way toward helping the Lions reverse the score?
“We’re six games into a brand new offense,” McSorley said. “There wasn’t an emphasis on me running the ball. You have a better gauge to it the more you get in a game. It’s just the more comfortable I am playing, being able to get a little savvier with the read (option) calls. We’re still scratching the surface.”
The Lions may not scratch up enough debris to clog high-powered Ohio State when they meet at Beaver Stadium in two weeks. But at least Penn State has a little more confidence now that hopes of pulling off an upset won’t rest exclusively on putting the ball in Barkley’s hands.
“It’s a huge confidence booster for our team to come out and have a game like we had (against Maryland),” McSorley said. “Huge promise for us. Huge for us to be able to get our running game going today.”
Nobody knows exactly where these sudden quarterback bursts are going to take the Lions.
But when McSorley takes off, at least they feel like they’re headed somewhere.