QB Trace McSorley sets tone for Penn State offense
STATE COLLEGE — Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley can pick up his phone, access his camera and scroll back a few years to find motivation. It's in a picture: McSorley looking defeated and dejected in the wake of his team's loss in the state championship game during his senior year at Briar Woods High School in Virginia.
It's not uncommon to remember the losses more than the wins. So is the case with McSorley. That snapshot remains on his camera roll "because I never want to feel that way again," he said. It's the one loss that stands out. But he remembers them all.
Maybe that's because he's lost just eight times in his 73 combined starts between high school and college, producing a winning percentage that would make even Nick Saban blush with envy. Since ascending to the starting job heading into last season, for example, McSorley has piloted Penn State to a Big Ten Conference championship, a Rose Bowl berth and the No. 4 ranking in this week's Amway Coaches Poll.
"I'm fortunate to not have that many," McSorley said of his losses. "Those feed you a little bit more than the wins do."
He still operates out of the limelight, relatively speaking, even on his home field. The largest roar during pregame introductions Saturday afternoon were reserved for junior Saquon Barkley, who quickly justified the applause by returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown and later added a slick one-handed grab and a touchdown pass to burnish his Heisman Trophy credentials.
Barkley dominates the conversation of a national scale; McSorley is viewed as a complementary piece behind Penn State's push for the College Football Playoff. But that sells the junior short. If often undervalued and occasionally questioned by the fan base — at this program as elsewhere, the backup quarterback is popular — McSorley's contributions to the Nittany Lions' growing national relevance cannot be ignored.
"He's a winner," said sophomore offensive lineman Ryan Bates. "When he gets the ball in his hands he can makes plays, and that's the bottom line. He's someone I can rely on."
Trace McSorley's numbers are better; James Franklin's favorite is 5-0 https://t.co/xQ3p8ahQAt— Philly.com (@phillydotcom) October 4, 2017
And he has improved. In the wake of the Rose Bowl loss to Southern California — when he was again overshadowed, this time by the Trojans' Sam Darnold — McSorley devoted himself to self-study, poring over hours and hours of game tape to identify areas in need of improvement. He found one: I need to get better at recognizing defenses, he said, a task aided this offseason by practicing against Penn State's intricate defensive scheme.
"After the USC game, I felt like a lot of that game came down on me," he said. "You've got to look at yourself in the mirror, but you can't focus too much on the past. You've got to move forward and stay confident in yourself."
Take the win against Indiana last weekend. The Hoosiers, like others, devoted resources to slowing down Barkley. On paper, it's a solid defensive formula: Indiana's defense limited Barkley to just 56 yards rushing, the second-lowest total of his college career in games against Power Five competition, and the Nittany Lions averaged just 5 yards per play, their lowest total in a game since last October's win against Ohio State.
Yet the offense still notched four touchdown drives, two spanning more than 70 yards, while McSorley threw for 315 yards and accounted for three scores. Damned if you do — as Barkley proved in last month's win against Iowa — but damned if you don't, as McSorley has proved himself capable of making the most of his turn in the spotlight.
"I think everyone knows just how important of a puzzle piece Trace is to our offense and this team," junior safety Nick Scott said.
COLUMN: Why Penn State fans need to start trusting Trace McSorley. https://t.co/ckGmhrSnTp— Black Shoe Diaries (@BSDtweet) October 2, 2017
That extends to his off-field impact. On Mondays, the team's off day, McSorley arranges for film sessions with the entire offense, sending out texts to set up the time and place. Let's get this going, he'll write. Even as Penn State stands as the unique title contender with a running back as its star, some things follow the standard: McSorley, as the quarterback, sets the tone.
"Saquon, he deserves that. There's a reason he's getting all this national attention." McSorley said. "I'm more focused on going out and doing my job on a day-to-day basis. If people start noticing that, then that's great. But if I can sort of stay behind the scenes ... even walking on campus I'd rather just put my headphones in and a hat, kind of put my head down and go to class."
Asked if that anonymity is possible, McSorley said no, not really. Not at Penn State, even if McSorley gets second billing on his own offense. That will continue for the rest of this season and even next, should Barkley opt to return for his senior season.
"I just focus on what I need to do here," he said. "All the national attention is just a bonus. If you win here, the national attention kind of comes."
The attention may come naturally. Now 5-0, the Nittany Lions receive none of the praise afforded to Alabama or Clemson — not to mention Oklahoma, even Ohio State and Michigan — but have taken care of business through one month, carrying last season's torrid close into September to stand front and center in the Playoff chase.
More of the same will earn Barkley a trip to Manhattan in December as a Heisman finalist, if not as the heavy favorite for the award. McSorley will watch the ceremony from home. But he's comfortable in that role. The outside perception is that McSorley might be interchangeable -- that he's maximizing his skill set in a quarterback-friendly offense. The Nittany Lions know he's irreplaceable.
"First man in, last guy out. That's something you can really apply to his approach," Scott said. "He's just a great leader. He does whatever he can to win. Trace is a guy you can always count on to do extra. You can see it pay off on the field. As far as national attention, he's a quiet guy anyway. I'm not sure if he really needs that or looks for that."