One year ago, in his second career start at Pitt, Trace McSorley cracked the 300-yard passing mark for the first time. In an early glimpse of what was to come, he completed six passes of over 20 yards against a vulnerable Pittsburgh secondary, including a 34-yard completion to DeAndre Thompkins on a fourth-and-16 to keep a comeback win within reach after the Nittany Lions had trailed by three touchdowns.
McSorley's last pass, however, fell into the hands of Pitt's Ryan Lewis in the end zone, a bold deep ball that was far more catchable for the two Panthers defenders in the end zone than the two Lions receivers. Penn State lost, 42-39, and the comeback wins would have to wait until later in the season. Little did we know that such a mistake would prove to be an anomaly, and that McSorley would soon become a master of the long ball.
Over the course of James Franklin's third season as head coach and Joe Moorhead's first as offensive coordinator, Penn State's big plays would become consistent, and the mistakes on such deep shots would be few. McSorley threw only eight interceptions in 14 games despite earning a reputation for aggressively launching long balls that appear to be risky.
Any suggestion that McSorley haphazardly launches deep passes and got lucky to complete so many will be met with scorn from Moorhead, who spoke on the topic last month at a press conference at Penn State's media day.
"You know kind of this thought process that's prevailing that you hear about -- and frankly, this is gross mischaracterization, number one, of the application of our offense and the role of the quarterback -- that Trace just drops back and picks the deepest receiver and chucks the ball up and hopes the guy makes the play," Moorhead said. "That's, in a lot of ways, ridiculous at best and, quite frankly, asinine at worst."
The perception of risk is part of what makes Penn State's offense so much fun to watch, but the calculation behind it all is what makes it so successful. It's what allowed Penn State to make a surprise run to a Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl last year and subsequently start 2017 with its highest preseason ranking (No. 6, already up to No. 4) since 1999.
McSorley is back, along with star running back Saquon Barkley, most of the offensive line and a deep receiving corps, despite the early departure of top wideout Chris Godwin. The Nittany Lions started their season by dominating Akron 52-0 on Saturday (McSorley's first drive ended in an interception, but he completed 18 of 25 for 280 yards and two TDs), and now they're getting set for Saturday's home showdown with Pitt.
It's the Panthers' first visit to Happy Valley since 1999 and an opportunity for some revenge in which McSorley hopes to build on all he accomplished last year, when he made big plays look routine.
"I don't have all the answers, but I do know this," Moorhead said. "A kid couldn't lead the league in multiple passing categories and set school single-season records and be on the verge of multiple other school records if he was just throwing the ball indiscriminately down the field. In a lot of ways, I feel that minimizes the role of the people who game plan the plays, the person who calls them and the player who executes them."
At 6-foot, 195 pounds, McSorley, a redshirt junior, isn't built like the typical player one might expect to have so much success with the long ball. The stereotypical traditional deep thrower is more like McSorley's Penn State predecessor, Christian Hackenberg, a 6-foot-4, 228-pound second-round draft pick who was a five-star recruit with an enormous arm. McSorley, however, has proved to be the ideal fit for Moorhead's offense, which mixes spread formations, run-pass options, tempo, quarterback runs and, yes, the aggressive but calculated pursuit of big plays.
With a young offensive line still developing last year, McSorley's mobility paired with Barkley's talent in the backfield was a huge asset. He has escapability, can move the pocket and can throw on the run, and even if he doesn't have the prototypical long-ball arm, he consistently puts the ball in the best position for his receivers to catch it, proving to be a reliable decision-maker as both a runner and a passer.
"Part of it is our scheme, taking shots at the right time, understanding how we're setting those shots up through our run game, through other passes that we have," McSorley said in August. "Part of it us understanding your matchups and your skill guys, who you've got, what some guys are better at."
Six Penn State players had at least four receptions of 30-plus yards last year, according to cfbstats.com. Godwin had the most, but the other five are back: tight end Mike Gesicki (6-foot-6, 250 pounds, 679 yards last year) and wide receivers Saeed Blacknall (6-foot-3, 217 pounds, and stole the show in the Big Ten title game), DeAndre Thompkins (had Penn State's first punt return TD since 2008 last Saturday) and DaeSean Hamilton (164 career catches), plus the versatile Barkley at tailback. They're joined by the offseason's breakout star, Juwan Johnson (6-foot-4, 226 pounds), who had a team-high 84 yards against Akron, plus a few other potential weapons like the speedy Brandon Polk and the big Irvin Charles.
It's an enticing blend of athletes and size, allowing Moorhead and McSorley to find and create favorable matchups in which the quaterback can be trusted to put the ball where his receiver is most likely to come down with it -- far more than a 50/50 proposition.
"You hear people say, well, are you guys going to be able to consistently live on the 50/50 ball down the field?" Moorhead said. "That's not what we do. Our offense is designed to stretch defenses horizontally and vertically and create mismatches by a number of personnel. So the things that we did throwing the ball down the field, they didn't happen by chance. They happened by choice."
According to cfbstats.com, Penn State had 65 pass completions of 20 or more yards, on 391 attempts. That means 16.62 percent of the Lions' pass attempts gained at least 20 yards, the fifth-highest percentage of any team since 2010 that threw a minimum of 225 passes (option teams like Georgia Tech and the service academies often complete an abnormally high percentage of deep passes on a low volume of throws.)
"How we do it is we understand our matchups and who we've got in our personnel," McSorley said. "But also the shots that we'll take, it's kind of designed to get our receivers in the best matchups possible and gain leverage in a certain way and take advantage of how defenses are playing us."
The presence of Barkley certainly helps, as defense can never stop devoting a significant amount of attention to the Heisman Trophy candidate running back, who is a big-play machine on the ground. Barkley finished last season with 249 yards from scrimmage in the Rose Bowl; he began this year with 226 yards from scrimmage on 17 offensive touches against Akron. He has a knack for embarrassing defenses with his explosiveness, power and shiftiness, and his success can't help but be the center of attention.
Defenses learned the hard way that they needed to take the vertical threat of McSorley and his array of receiving weapons seriously, too, all on top of his ability to move the chains with his feet when needed. On Saturday, Pitt will have to try to contain it all without its best defensive back in Jordan Whitehead, who's suspended. It will have to do it with a defense that gave up 4,331 passing yards last year, ranking 106th in defensive passer rating.
Penn State's explosiveness won't take anybody by surprise anymore, but it also benefits from a year of experience in which the offensive line is stronger and McSorley and others have matured in the scheme, which is in only its second season with Moorhead calling the plays. At the time of the last game against Pitt, this was all in its infant stages. McSorley and Penn State showed signs of the entertaining, big-play offense it would become when Pitt saw it last Sept. 10, but at that point, it was far from mastered, far from confident.
Now, passes that might look like risks for McSorley and his weapons are all part of a carefully executed plan that gives the Nittany Lions legitimate playoff hopes, a year after such thoughts weren't being entertained.