STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Trace McSorley played all but the final series in the first half before calling it an afternoon during halftime. In the process the Penn State defensive linemen were praised for their ability to keep the Nittany Lions quarterback unscathed during the first half.
That wasn’t Penn State’s plan to play McSorley as much until the injury situation became more clear this week.
“Our guys do a really good job of understanding how to practice and how to stay away from the quarterback,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. “If Tommy [Stevens] was available Tommy would’ve gotten a bunch of reps and obviously if [Sean] Clifford didn’t tweak his hamstring you would’ve saw very little of Trace.”
Stevens missed all of spring ball with an undisclosed injury but was out of his walking boot on Saturday. Clifford, a redshirt freshman who repped as McSorley’s backup all spring, had limited mobility while playing through a hamstring injury he sustained last week.
“[Sean] lived in the training room and he was able to get out there and get some work done,” Franklin said. “I thought overall this spring he did some really good things, but one of his strengths within our offense is obviously his mobility and that was a little bit limited this week, but I thought he did some really good things. He got a lot of reps to be able to grow, to be able to compete for one of those backup roles this fall.”
So it was more McSorley than expected for the 71,000 fans inside a sun-splashed Beaver Stadium, a detail that they’d happily accept. McSorley scrambled often and came out hot, completing 4 of 6 passes for 39 yards and added 22 more yards on the ground during Penn State’s opening touchdown drive. He completed 10 of 14 passes for 107 yards, including a long of 43 yards to redshirt freshman slot receiver KJ Hamler. Redshirt freshman Mac Hippenhammer caught McSorley’s 5-yard touchdown strike to cap the opening drive.
While tight end Mike Gesicki watched from the sideline and Saquon Barkley did the same, McSorley worked with his new targets and new weapons, a telltale sign of spring. Danny Dalton worked as McSorley’s top tight end, a position that will need to be figured out during fall camp.
But, for Clifford and reserve quarterback Jake Zembiec, the latter whom suited up for the White squad, the Blue-White game was a chance to play in Beaver Stadium and in front of people in the bleachers. Players compete differently in that environment and sometimes coaches think differently, too, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne pointed out.
Clifford, who worked behind the starting offensive line after McSorley exited right before the half, completed 4 of 8 passes for 58 yards and threw a touchdown pass to Hippenhammer for 29 yards. Would offensive coordinator Rahne be OK with putting Clifford in a game next season based off what he was from him this spring?
“Yeah, I wouldn’t have recruited him if I wouldn’t have been comfortable with him playing,” Rahne said. “Even the mistakes he made [Saturday] they were explainable so I’m fine with that. Those are things that I can work with him on and if anything I need to just tighten up how I coach him on a couple things like that, but in general I thought he handled the situation well, made some good throws — especially the last two — that showed glimpses of what he can do.”
Zembiec completed 6 of 12 passes for 39 yards and also had a 31-yard run late in the game that was a spark for the reserve team. That drive ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass.
While Stevens was limited physically all spring and watched from the sideline again on Saturday, he too still made gains. Improving his mental approach to the position became a focal point for him and that approach paid off, Rahne said. Being attentive in meetings and being succinct with his answers when Rahne asked him questions was another gain for the offense this spring. Come fall camp, they’ll see where all of them stack up behind McSorley and how much more prepared Clifford is because of his added reps this spring.
“I thought he had an excellent spring mentally,” Rahne said of Clifford. “He even said he thought it was his best spring mentally and I agree with him completely.”