STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Clearly Penn State is one of the toughest teams for people around the country to figure out.
Being No. 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings but No. 20 and No. 23 in the two major polls is a pretty good indication of the confusing nature of the Nittany Lions’ resume. And it’s place in the college football landscape.
No other team’s position is separated by more than six spots apart in the CFP rankings and the AP Top-25 poll or by five in the CFP poll and coaches’ poll.
Perhaps the most perplexing part of this perplexing Penn State team is the passing game. The Nittany Lions have improved as the season has progressed running the ball and defending the run. The pass defense and special teams have been strong all season.
But what to make of what happens when quarterback Trace McSorley puts the ball in the air is another matter. Consider this confusing collection of statistics:
- McSorley is fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards (1,818) and tied for first in yards per attempt (8.2). His touchdown-to-interception ratio (12-3) trails only Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett (17-4) and Michigan’s Wilton Speight (13-3).
- His quarterback rating (138.71) is fifth in the conference but just 52nd nationally.
- His completion percentage (55.2) is 10th in the conference and 100th among qualified passers in the nation.
Happen to be someone who prefers advanced statistics more than the traditional ones?
Penn State ranks third in the nation in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ passing rating.
Say what, now? Ahead of everyone in the country, save for a team with a 2015 Heisman Trophy candidate (Oklahoma) and a potential 2016 Heisman finalist (Washington)?
How is that possible? Well, Connelly’s analytical system adjusts for a lot of things that traditional stats do not, such as the strength of the opponent, pace of play and the score of the game.
For instance, McSorley’s performance against Michigan (16 of 27, 121 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) looks distinctly subpar. But it was the second-best game any team has had (by quarterback rating) against the Wolverines this season.
Connelly, and others who are proponents of advanced statistics in college football, put a premium on explosive plays and turnovers. Those are two of the five most important parts of the game, according to Connelly. Not surprisingly, both Penn State coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead talked at length about the Nittany Lions creating more explosive plays than their opponents and winning the turnover battle.
“Ultimately, we kind of identified the spots we need to be successful to give ourselves a chance to win — scoring offense, explosive plays, turnover margin,” Moorhead said. “We’ve been pretty good there, and obviously, some others, we need to improve on, to0.”
McSorley hasn’t thrown an interception in four games. And after the Nittany Lions lost seven fumbles in the first four games, they’ve only lost two in the past four.
The offense has certainly been explosive. Penn State leads the Big Ten with eight plays of 50-plus yards, and is second to Michigan in plays of 40-plus yards, 30-plus yards and 20-plus yards.
McSorley has 34 completions of 20-plus yards, which leads the conference, and 20 of 30-plus yards, which is 25 percent more than anyone else in the Big Ten. He’s at least tied for 10th nationally in 20-plus, 30-plus, 40-plus and 50-plus yard completions.
Even though the Nittany Lions have players capable of turning short passes into long gains, Penn State is throwing the ball down the field more this season. It’s a stark contrast from the past two seasons, when Penn State’s offense relied on short passes while trying (and failing) to protect Christian Hackenberg.
“From the first time I started talking to Coach Moorhead, he was telling me that we’re going to be able to run the ball, and then we’re going to be able to take shots down the field,” Penn State wideout Chris Godwin said. “Trusting him and trusting the process, I believed what he was telling us. I’m not really shocked with the things that we’ve been able to do so far this year.”
There are reasons why Penn State is throwing deep more other than “the new offensive coordinator wants to do it.” One is the offensive line’s improvement, which has given McSorley more time to find open receivers than Hackenberg had. McSorley’s mobility has also helped allow him buy time when protection breaks down.
Teams are also crowding the line of scrimmage to try to stop Saquon Barkley, one of the best running backs in the country.
“I think Saquon Barkley does a couple of things,” Franklin said. “He forces us to see a lot of defenses that have a lot of men in the box. But he also creates possibilities and opportunities for plays down the field because our guys are in one-on-one situations.”
All of the big plays are great, but that doesn’t mean Franklin and Moorhead are satisfied with McSorley’s completion percentage. Both coaches mentioned the mid-60s as a goal. But neither wants to sacrifice the potential for big plays just to goose McSorley’s percentage.
There are factors to consider for why it is so low. More deep shots obviously are completed less frequently. While the offensive line is improved, McSorley is still getting chased from the pocket a fair amount. That forces him to toss the ball into the benches to avoid a sack if no one is open.
Moorhead also mentioned that receivers needed to do a better job of getting separation against man coverage on third downs. When teams play zone on third downs, that often leads to a quarterback dumping the ball off short of the first-down marker. If teams play man-to-man, it makes it more likely that McSorley will throw downfield.
Completing a higher percentage of passes and converting more third downs are the last two components that would push Penn State’s offense from “quite productive” to “elite.” While Penn State is third nationally in S&P+ passing and 11th in isoPPP, which is a measure of explosiveness, the Nittany Lions are also 94th in success rate, which measures efficiency.
“I think the decision-making has been pretty good,” Moorhead said. “There are rarely times when times when we come in and look at the film and say (McSorley) misdiagnosed the coverage or misread a read and threw it to the wrong person. So, from that standpoint, he understands where he is going with the ball and why.
“From that, you talk about completion percentage. … Certainly 50-55 percent is not where we’d like him to be at. He’d like to be at 65 percent or higher, but I think he is trending in the right direction.”