HEISER: To beat elite foes, Penn State will need better version of Trace McSorley

Steve Heiser
York Dispatch
  • Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley has a QB rating of 156.2 this season.
  • That is almost identical to his 2016 rating of 156.9 during his breakout sophomore campaign.
  • Despite those numbers, McSorley has missed a number of wide-open receivers in PSU's first two games.

Saquon Barkley is a potential Heisman Trophy winner.

Mike Gesicki is the best pass-catching tight end in the nation.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley has led the Nittany Lions to a 5-0 start in 2017.

The offensive line still isn’t spectacular, but it is improved, experienced and deep.

The special teams appear to be a strength.

And the defense, while still very much a work in progress, has shown promise in allowing just 14 points in the first two games.

That is what we know about the 2017 Penn State football team entering the Nittany Lions’ bye week — uh-oh, sorry about that, my mistake — entering the Nittany Lions’ Week 3 contest vs. 38½-point underdog Georgia State at Beaver Stadium.

Reason for concern: What we still don’t know, however, is whether junior quarterback Trace McSorley and his fleet of rangy, athletic wideouts will be good enough to carry Penn State past the elite opposition that awaits.

Right now, there’s reason to be concerned.

On the surface, McSorley’s 2017 numbers look fine. He’s completed more than 62 percent of his passes, boasts five touchdowns compared to two interceptions and is throwing for more than 222 yards per game. His 2017 QB rating of 156.2 is almost identical to his 156.9 rating from his breakout sophomore season in 2016.

Dig beneath the surface, however, and actually watch the games, and you’ll see that McSorley’s 2017 performances have been spotty.

He’s flat out missed a number of open receivers, and on a few occasions he completed passes, but failed to hit his receivers in stride, thus missing opportunities for truly big plays. McSorley started just 6 of 15 in Saturday’s 33-14 win over Pitt.

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Improvement necessary: When the weather gets cooler and the foes get tougher, Penn State can’t afford to have a quarterback whose accuracy is in question if it wants to become a championship-caliber team.

McSorley knows that better than anyone. After the Pitt game, he more or less admitted that he needs to get better.

 “A lot of that was on me at the beginning,” McSorley said of his poor start vs. the Panthers. “I was jittery and my feet weren’t as settled down as they needed to be. I was missing on open throws. I think the emotions of everything coming into today got the best of me.”

A jittery, overly-emotional and inaccurate McSorley could spell doom for Penn State down the road.

No need to panic: There’s no reason to panic, of course. We’re only two games into the season and Penn State is 2-0, and will be 3-0 after the Georgia State game.

Tougher tests loom, however, starting with a prime-time visit to unbeaten Iowa on Saturday, Sept. 23, in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

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When the conference games start, the Lions will need McSorley at his very best. The Big Ten teams know all about Barkley and Gesicki and the damage they can inflict. They will definitely make it a priority to take away those two PSU options and make McSorley and his wideouts prove that they can win big games.

During last season’s surprising run to the Big Ten title, McSorley and his wide receivers did just that on most occasions, producing one big play after another under the direction offensive whiz Joe Moorhead.

Struggles vs. tough foes: Still, even in 2016, there were some hiccups. In marquee match-ups against Michigan and Ohio State last season, McSorley struggled mightily, with a QB rating of 106 or lower in each contest. The Michigan game, of course, ended in an epic beatdown for the Lions. And yes, PSU did stun Ohio State, but it wasn’t because of McSorley, but rather in spite of him. The defense and special teams carried the Nits that night.

That kind of effort won’t cut it this season. With teams focusing intensely on Barkley and Gesicki, there should be major opportunities for McSorley and his wideouts to gash opposing defenses. They must take advantage of those chances.

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If they can’t, the Lions can say goodbye to any league or national title hopes.

The good news is, it’s only Week 3. There’s still time for McSorley to find his groove.

If he does, there’s no limit to what the Lions can accomplish this season.

If he doesn’t, a season of great expectations will end in disappointment.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch.