IOWA CITY, Iowa — To fully appreciate the pain Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley can inflict upon the Iowa defense, fans must remember the player from the recent past most like him.
Perhaps no quarterback in the last decade made Iowa fans swear more than Northwestern’s Dan Persa, who juked and passed and rallied the Wildcats from double-digit deficits to a pair of upsets over the Hawkeyes in 2009 and 2010. Persa was patient, tough, accurate and decisive. Even bringing up his name years later causes Iowa fans to wince.
McSorley is like Persa, only with a quicker release, better speed and a more talented cast surrounding him. McSorley not only has the potential to beat Iowa, he could embarrass the Hawkeyes.
“He’s kind of the guy that makes it all go,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He really does a good job with operation. He’s patient, all those kinds of things. They just put pressure on you at every position. It makes it really difficult.”
McSorley, a junior, hardly is imposing physically at 6-foot and 195 pounds. But he executes at a level few can attain. Last fall, McSorley broke Penn State’s single-season records for passing yards (3,616), passing touchdowns (29) and total offense (3,979). Just as impressive, he ranks No. 2 behind Kerry Collins in single-season pass efficiency (156.9), and his 9.34 yards per attempt rank third. He also ran for 365 yards and 7 touchdowns.
He did all of that as a sophomore in leading the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten championship. So far, McSorley has guided No. 4-ranked Penn State to a 3-0 record entering its game at Iowa (3-0) Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET at Kinnick Stadium. The game will air on ABC.
“[McSorley] can do it with his feet; he can throw the ball,” Iowa linebacker Bo Bower said. “When you’ve got a dual guy like that, obviously it’s hard. But, again, as long as everyone’s playing their fits and doing the things they have to do on certain calls, we’ll be just fine.”
McSorley put all of his assets on display in last year’s 41-14 slicing of the Hawkeyes at Beaver Stadium. He completed 11 of 18 passes for 240 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. In addition, McSorley ran for 40 yards and a score as Penn State rolled up 599 yards of total offense — the second-most against a Ferentz-coached team.
“He’s pretty interesting,” Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said. “He can run, he can throw. So you’re going to have to be assignment-driven football this week with him and have guys in the pocket with the understanding that they need to keep him contained.”
What Iowa did last year was the opposite of assignment-driven football. Everybody missed tackles. Defensive backs blew their assignments while trying to compensate for others. The linebackers were a step slow, indecisive and frequently bit on play fakes. The defensive line struggled to fill gaps, which enabled running back Saquon Barkley to eat them alive when McSorley wasn’t cutting them apart.
McSorley was the reason for most of the issues. Nobody runs the zone read like McSorley, who hides the ball better than any other quarterback. After handing off the ball, nobody carries out fakes like him, either. McSorley’s consistency on every down confuses defenders.
Additionally, McSorley’s dual-threat abilities stresses defensive backs. Typically if a quarterback runs toward the line of scrimmage, the secondary rushes in to make the tackle. McSorley often finds receivers when he’s on the run.
“He’s unique is his own ways,” Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson said. “How he can stay in the pocket, get out of the pocket and throw, athletic, he can run. I think that’s what makes him unique.
“I think he’s a really shifty guy. He can make plays on the run. You want to get to him fast.”
The best way to stop McSorley is to keep him in the pocket, collapse it around him and not allow any space to run. That strategy applies to most quarterbacks, and it much easier to say than to execute, especially against Penn State.
But the Hawkeyes will try. And if they’re going to be successful, they’ve got to focus on slowing down McSorley.
“He’ll run it or throw it,” Ferentz said. “He’s really good at reading things out. He’s dangerous.”