Penn State hopes to have passing game finally straightened out
The Nittany Lions enter their final regular-season game seeking to find some consistency through the air.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — James Franklin recognizes a storyline when he sees one, and one of the most talked-about stories of Penn State's 2018 football season has been its inconsistency in the passing game.
Even last week, in the 11th game of their season, the Nittany Lions could not sustain a solid passing attack for more than a couple of drives in their win over Rutgers. Trace McSorley went 17-for-37 for 183 yards, the fourth time this season he has completed less than half his throws.
The 15th-ranked Lions will get one more chance in the regular season to straighten out that area, taking on Maryland on Saturday on what is expected to be another rainy day at Beaver Stadium.
Granted, Penn State doesn't have the playmakers that it had the previous two seasons. Saquon Barkley and Chris Godwin in 2016, and Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki in 2017 were reliable targets for McSorley. The Lions averaged 260.7 yards through the air two years ago, and 290.2 yards last season.
This season, however, the team's average is 212.2. Coming off back-to-back seasons when he amassed more than 3,500 yards with his arm, McSorley is at 2,054 yards with two games remaining, including a bowl matchup. He has battled a knee injury the last month, and has been affected by drops and timing issues with younger receivers all season.
"It's really kind of that way for the year," Franklin said at his Wednesday practice availability.
"Whether it's dropped balls, whether it's pressure on the quarterback, whether it's sacks, or whether it's missing some throws that we should make, we've just been a little bit off. It hasn't been the same tune each week. It's been something a little bit different."
McSorley, who suffered a knee injury in last month's Iowa game and tweaked the knee two weeks later on a sack by Wisconsin, has received some criticism from Penn State fans. Franklin said it has taken time for the new receivers to gain experience.
"For a good portion of the year, while those guys are trying to get adjusted to figure things out, Trace is carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders, probably too much weight," Franklin said. "I think early on, he probably didn't get enough credit, and probably now he's getting too much criticism. But he's been just spectacular. He's been fantastic."
McSorley is one of 21 seniors who will be honored before the game.
The Terrapins, who need a win in their season finale to become bowl eligible, have an excellent secondary. They are tied for the FBS lead in interceptions with 18, with at least one in every game this season. Linebacker Tre Watson leads the Big Ten with five picks.
Penn State has been better running the football. Its average, 199.4 yards, is 29 yards higher than last season. Miles Sanders has rushed for 1,095 yards.
Franklin would like to see his team sustain drives better. The Nittany Lions scored both their touchdowns last week off turnovers with drives of 28 and 46 yards. They had a 13-play march that ended with a short field goal, and a 12-play drive was halted by a fumble.
Maryland at Penn State
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College
Records: Penn State, 8-3, 5-3 Big Ten, ranked No. 15 by the AP; Maryland, 5-6, 3-5.
Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (fifth season, 44-20); Maryland, Matt Canada (first season, 5-6).
TV/radio: 6ABC; WNTP-AM (990); WNPV-AM (1440)
History: Penn State leads the series, 38-2-1. The Nittany Lions posted a 66-3 victory last year at College Park, Md. The Terrapins' last win, 20-19, came at Happy Valley in 2014.
Three things to watch
Who wants it more? The Nittany Lions have moved up to No. 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings and have a good chance to earn their third consecutive New Year's Six bowl invitation with a win on their Senior Day. The Terrapins, however, need a win to become bowl eligible, having lost opportunities to get that coveted sixth victory with a two-point loss at Indiana two weeks ago and last week's one-point overtime defeat against Ohio State. In addition, Maryland continues to play for Jordan McNair, a young offensive lineman who died in June, two weeks after a workout. So it will be an interesting first half to see which team comes out sharper and more prepared.
Turnovers are key. After struggling most of the season to get turnovers, Penn State has recorded seven in the last two games and has gone plus-4 during that time. The Lions have 13 interceptions this season, including three each by Amani Oruwariye, Nick Scott, and Garrett Taylor. Maryland is tied for the FBS lead with 18 interceptions and has at least one in every game. Linebacker Tre Watson (five picks) and safety Darnell Savage Jr. (four) lead the way in that department. Ball security will be important. Miles Sanders lost his third fumble last week for Penn State.
Not getting too overhyped. James Franklin says he'll be as emotional as anyone as he and the team honor 21 seniors who will be playing their last game in Beaver Stadium. But he and his players will have to switch gears once they leave the locker room for kickoff. He said that the Terrapins "don't get enough credit for how talented their roster is" and that the Lions must be focused to deal with the problems the Terps present, especially with their rushing attack. In Franklin's words, "keeping things as normal as possible" will be important.