Steady Penn State QB McSorley Must Improve In One Area

As the Nittany Lions hit the road to open Big Ten play at No. 4 Michigan, their first-year starting quarterback will be focused on a ball security.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley has been called “Steady Eddie” by head coach James Franklin, a guy who never allows a situation to overwhelm him.

The way McSorley told it on a conference call with reporters Tuesday, only one thing really makes him nervous.

“I’m not a huge fan of heights, I guess,” he said, adding that he learned that when he went rock-climbing one time.

He has managed to lift his team in a great many ways this season, his first as a starter. He enters Saturday’s Big Ten opener at No. 4 Michigan second in the conference in total offense (288.7 yards per game) and passing yardage (276.0), while completing 64.4 percent of his passes for 828 yards and four touchdowns.

But McSorley, and the offense as a whole, have been weighed down by turnovers. Penn State’s 12 fumbles are the most in the FBS, their six lost fumbles fourth most, and at least twice as many as any other Big Ten team. The Lions are minus-two in turnover ratio, which is tied for dead last in the conference.

McSorley has been particularly loose with the ball, fumbling eight times and losing three. He has also been intercepted twice.

“We’ve had multiple turnovers in each game,” he said. “That’s something that we need to cut out.”

Two of McSorley’s lost fumbles have come on blindside hits, the other when a Pitt defender attacked the mesh point between the QB and running back Saquon Barkley on a read option. McSorley also dropped two snaps last week against Temple (balls he regained) and has had other issues as well.

“They’re all correctible,” he said. “Whether it’s pocket security or snaps or just running with the ball and keeping it high and tight, each thing is correctible. We just have to correct it, and stop it from happening.”

Franklin said during his regular weekly conference call that the Lions regularly do “between six and nine” ball-security drills in practice, and that hanging onto the ball will continue to be a point of emphasis.

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“The biggest thing is fundamentals and techniques,” the coach said, “and having an awareness of how important the ball is.”

The Lions fumbled 15 times in 2014, Franklin’s first season, and lost 11. Last year they fumbled 18 times, losing 12.

“We've got to hold onto the ball and be more ball secure,” he said. “That's something that's going to be very important to us, something we've done a fairly good job of in the past. And we need to make sure that we get back to doing that.”

As for McSorley’s interceptions, the first was an end-zone pick late in the loss to Pitt, when he overthrew tight end Mike Gesicki. The other came in the third quarter of the victory over Temple, when DaeSean Hamilton ran a post and McSorley appeared to expect him to run a curl.

“I just rushed what I was doing,” he said. “I just saw the thing and probably got excited because he was in a one-on-one matchup and just rushed it. That’s something that I’ve just got to trust him, that he’s going to make the break and that he’s going to get open. I just have to put the ball in the right spot.”

Any mistake figures to be magnified against the Wolverines, who play an attacking, aggressive defensive style.

“They hit you hard,” McSorley said.

PSU will have to account for Jabrill Peppers, who has recorded an FBS-best 9.5 tackles for losses while lining up all over the place. (Franklin said UM essentially plays with three safeties, with Peppers the wild card in the mix.)

And what of playing in the Big House itself?

“We went there two years ago,” said McSorley, who redshirted that season. “That was definitely a different experience. … It was something that I can carry with me, knowing what it was like, so this isn’t the first time I’ll be stepping into that stadium that’s packed with 115,000 fans or however many the Big House holds.”

Steady Eddie, indeed. Now he just has to clean up that blot on his resume.

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