Never mind that first-year starter Trace McSorley ranks third in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (239.3) and fourth in the conference in total offense per game (273.0). And never mind that he is on pace to become only the third Penn State quarterback to pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season (joining Matt McGloin and Daryll Clark).
The key thing about McSorley is the significant improvement he’s shown from the start of the season in terms of operating Joe Moorhead no-huddle offense.
Take, for instance, ball security. Through three games, McSorley had an alarming eight fumbles, three of which he had lost. In the last three games, he has gotten more comfortable stepping up on the pocket to avoid the rush and has done a better job of securing the pigskin when he tucks and runs. The result? No fumbles in that span.
Speaking of running, we also saw the proverbial light go on for McSorley in that regard in the second half of the comeback win over Minnesota. He rushed for a short TD in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, he scrambled for a 26-yard gain to help set up the field goal that sent the game to overtime.
It was no coincidence that RB Saquon Barkley, who had been bottled up by an eight-man front most of the game, popped the 25-yard game-winner in OT. The Gophers finally had to play McSorley honestly, and that gave Barkley the room he needed.
It is going to be fun to see how much better McSorley gets as he gains even more experience in Moorhead’s offense.
Speaking of Barkley, give him lots of credit for staying patient as the Nittany Lions got the hang of the RPO elements of Moorhead’s offense. Against the best teams on the schedule, this was clearly a learning experience. The rhythm between the QB and RB just was not there, especially when opponents attacked the mesh point.
In State’s first five games, Barkley only reached the 100-yard mark vs. Kent State in the opener. Along the way, he had some of the more remarkable one- and two-yard gains in memory, making would-be tacklers miss in the backfield and salvaging something out of broken plays.
But then things began to really click with McSorley in the second half of the Minnesota game. And against Maryland the following week, Barkley exploded for career highs of 31 carries and 202 yards.
And just like that, he was up to fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (97.0) and had boosted his yards-per-carry average to 5.0. After six games, he had a league-best eight touchdowns scored.
Outside of a couple of fumbles by freshman Miles Sanders, the backups have been solid when called upon.
There is a lot to like here. It starts with the fact that for the first time in years, the Lions don’t have one go-to receiver, but rather three different wideouts who have come up big at different times.
DeAndre Thompkins has stepped in for the injury Saeed Blacknall and come through with 18 catches for a team-high 328 yards. Chris Godwin has 23 catches for 325 yards and DaeSean Hamiltonn has 18 catches for 204 yards. All have been good on deep balls.
But, aside from redshirt freshman Irvin Charles’ 80-yard momentum-swinging TD against the Gophers, PSU has gotten very little production from its backup wideouts. In fact, Moorhead has barely used them.
Further, in the blowout loss to Michigan, the receivers — who as a group were supposed to be the strength of the offense — could not get anything going vs. the Wolverines’ tight man coverage.
And finally, through six games, WRs have accounted for only five of PSU’s 22 touchdowns.
A lot was expected out of this unit going into the season, so while grading we are holding it to that standard. Outside of the balanced production among the starters, we can’t say this position has met expectations — so far.
All eyes were on junior Mike Gesickii as he looked to bounce back from a sophomore slump marred by numerous drops. For the second straight year, coaches and teammates raved about Gesicki in spring practice and preseason camp. This time, he lived up to the hype.
At the midway point of the season, Gesicki ranks second on the team in catches (23), third in receiving yards (277) and is tied for the team lead in TD catches (two). Put another way, in the first half of 2016, he has pretty much doubled his production from 2014 and 2015 combined.
And that has been huge given the turnover of personnel at tight end, with Kyle Carter graduating, Adam Breneman transferring to UMass and Brent Wilkerson being kicked off the team due to off-field issues. The Lions also lost promising redshirt freshman Nick Bowers to a season-ending injury.
The nit to pick with Gesicki continues to be his spotty blocking. If and when he ever gets that down, he’ll have a chance to go down among State’s all-time best at the position.
This is pretty much of an individual grade. Backups Tom Pancoast and Jonathan Holland have both played in every game. But neither has a catch and we can’t recall either of them even being targeted.
The new offense has really helped Penn State’s much-maligned front five. McSorley, who has significantly better pocket awareness than predecessor Christian Hackenberg, has been a huge help, too.
Outside of being manhandled by a clearly superior Michigan defensive front (the Wolverines registered six sacks), the PSU offensive line has allowed only eight other sacks on the season. And while many will want to focus on the struggles of the ground game for most of the first five games, as of this writing Penn State ranked a respectable fifth in the Big Ten in scoring offense (30.5 ppg) and was tied for the fifth most rushing TDs (13).
The best news for this group is that the transition to the high-ceiling young talent has finally begun, with redshirt freshman Ryan Batess and true freshman Connor McGovern manning the starting guard positions heading into the second half of the season. Another true freshman, Will Fries, will come out of a redshirt if there are any further issues at tackle. And yet another true freshman, Michal Menet, is so athletic that he is being used as a tight end on the scout team.
The bad news for this group is that veteran right tackle Andrew Nelson, who was arguably the team’s best offensive lineman, was lost for the season to a leg injury sustained vs. Maryland. While the Lions still went on to finish with 372 rushing yards against the Terps, having to shuffle the line with No. 2 Ohio State on the docket coming out of the bye could mean trouble.
We don’t think it is much of a stretch to say we’ve seen more development from the Penn State offense in six games under Moorhead than we did in two seasons under John Donovan. That goes for individuals (see McSorley) and the offense in general (see the running game).
The key, obviously, is for that to continue in the second half of the season. And, outside of the matchup with the Buckeyes, the schedule sure seems to set up well for the offense to get better and better.
Of the final five opponents, only Iowa (fourth) ranked in the top eight of the Big Ten in scoring defense as of this writing.