Trace McSorley may be the team's offensive MVP: Chris Ash might have said it best about McSorley. "That kid would be the first guy you'd take in backyard football," the Rutgers head coach said last week. "He just has that 'it' factor." Penn State's fourth-year junior quarterback may be overshadowed by Saquon Barkley, but he keeps things moving smoothly on offense regardless of how inconsistent the running game is or scrambling when pass protection breaks down. In Saturday's 35-6 win over the Scarlet Knights, he brought the Nittany Lions out of their early-game funk with pinpoint passing and a tough, 20-yard touchdown run during which he broke two tackles. He is 22nd in FBS in passing efficiency, completing 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,452 yards and 19 TDs, and 16th in total offense (306.3 yards per game). He is tied for 11th in average points responsible for, based on 27 passing and rushing touchdowns, and his 68 career TDs in those categories are a Penn State record. He is the biggest reason why the Lions are 8-2.
Barkley needed a big game, didn't get it: Not even a few plays out a pistol formation, where he was lined up behind McSorley instead of next to him, could help Barkley and the inconsistent running game against a Rutgers team that ranked next-to-last in rushing defense in the Big Ten. He established a season low with 35 yards on the ground, not good enough to compete with the spectacular numbers being put up by Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Stanford running back Bryce Love. His Heisman Trophy candidacy would appear to be on life support, leaving all who watched him to go through the highlight reel of his early-season accomplishments — the 358 all-purpose yards at Iowa, the 80-yard run against Akron, the 69-yard TD dash that fired up an already hyper "White Out" crowd against Michigan, the opening kickoff return for a score at Ohio State. Those probably will get him to New York on the night of Dec. 9, when the trophy is awarded. But most would consider it a shame it didn't work out.
Is the defense regaining its groove? After being picked apart for 1,003 yards and 66 points in those narrow losses at Ohio State and Michigan State, the Nittany Lions defense needed a game to feel good about, and the unit found it in Rutgers, keeper of one of the worst offenses in the country. The Lions held the Scarlet Knights to 200 total yards, with 93 of them coming in the final 41 minutes of playing time, and only 3 of 15 on third-down conversioins. They held the visitors to a season low in first downs (10) and 59 plays, as compared to 78 and 80, respectively, against the Buckeyes and the Spartans. Penn State would love to finish strong and attract at least a bid to a New Year's Six bowl, and the defense will play a key role.
Getting back to physical: Head coach James Franklin complained the previous two weeks about his team not being physical enough, and that it would be an area of attention at practice last week. Asked about it after the game, he said it was a little bit better but added: "I still think that's an area that we can get better in." He cited some missed tackles but added, "When you win the way we just won, I would say we were the more physical football team, but I still think we need some improvement there." The Penn State rushing attack gained just 2.9 yards per carry, and McSorley was sacked twice, so there is some work that needs to be done.
The Big Ten is crazy: The results are ridiculous. Penn State suffers a one-point defeat at Ohio State, then the Buckeyes get drilled by 31 points the following week. The Nittany Lions lose to Michigan State, and the Spartans are routed, 48-3, one week later. Penn State could finish in a four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten East at 7-2, but it would lose the tiebreaker because it lost to two of the teams it will be tied with. A three-way tie with Ohio State and Michigan would go to the second tiebreaker, record within the division, and the Lions, currently 2-2 in that department, are out on that one, too. So if you're so inclined, root for Illinois (hosting Ohio State) and Maryland (home vs. Michigan State) this week. Miracles do happen, although it would be wise not to bet on them in this case.