Penn State is on a four-game winning streak that includes an upset of then-No. 2 Ohio State. It gashed Purdue for 62 points Saturday in West Lafayette. And its average of 32.9 points per game is up almost 10 from last season.
Now seems like an awkward time for a quarterback controversy, huh?
Here are the facts, though.
Over the past four games, Trace McSorley’s completion percentage is an inefficient 46.2, a reflection of his inability to consistently hit receivers on intermediate and long routes. That was especially clear in the first half against the Boilermakers, when he missed several open guys with overthrows down the sideline.
Worse, McSorley has struggled with third down passing. This piece from Land of 10’s Sean Keeler today shows he has the worst third-down conversion percentage of any quarterback in the Big Ten.
McSorley has also struggled at times to make quick reads, a critical component of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s read-option attack that relies more on timing than perhaps anything else. For that reason, we’ve seen a lot of plays snuffed out in the backfield as a result not of poor design, but of indecisiveness.
And for all the credit McSorley gets for being more mobile than his predecessor, Christian Hackenberg, he’s not an especially dynamic runner. Take his 2.9 yards per carry average with a grain of salt, as that includes the yards he’s lost being sacked. But don’t assume your eyes are deceiving you, either. He’s able to take what defenses give him, but doesn’t have the athleticism or size to create much more.
To be clear, this is not an open-and-shut case against him being the starting quarterback. No such argument exists when the guy in question has admirably led the Nittany Lions to a 6-2 start by making mostly good decisions in critical spots, as evidenced by his 3:1 ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions. (David Jones of PennLive did a nice piece last week extolling that virtue.)
It’s a case that has its merits, though, to the point that we should more broadly be revisiting the conversation of McSorley vs. backup Tommy Stevens that dominated the preseason.
The case for Stevens is a little more opaque because we’ve seen him only in bits and pieces at garbage time late in blowouts.
That limited playing time has revealed him to be a pretty dynamic runner. He has 67 yards on nine carries this season, good for an average of 7.4 per tote, and it’s easy to see why. He cuts upfield quickly and decisively, and at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he has the size to lower the shoulder and push around some smaller linebackers.
That size, one imagines, could also help him as a passer, allowing him to see the field better than McSorley, who’s listed — perhaps generously — four inches shorter. We have not observed that directly yet, as Stevens has thrown just two passes this season. We do know, though, that he completed almost 60 percent of his throws as a senior at Decatur Central near Indianapolis and has received positive reviews for his passing, especially in the past year.
The real wild-card is his ability to make quick reads and good decisions in Moorhead’s scheme. We have not seen that in any meaningful sample size either, and because McSorley’s status as the starter hasn’t been questioned to this point, the coaching staff hasn’t said much publicly about how Stevens is progressing in that regard.
In the end, he probably doesn’t have enough going for him, at least publicly, for anyone to argue strongly for a McSorley benching as long as the team is winning.
But what if the offense starts to struggle, with McSorley’s obvious warts being primary reason? How quickly should Franklin go to his backup for the sake of winning football games with the Big Ten East title still a possibility?
If Penn State drops out of the race with a loss against Iowa or Indiana in the next couple of weeks, should Franklin consider seeing what he has in Stevens as a potential starter heading into an offseason in which the two quarterbacks figure to be at loggerheads again, with redshirt freshman Jake Zembiec joining the fray as well?
My answers to those questions are that Franklin should at the very least have a firm grip on McSorley’s leash, and that Penn State should give Stevens more playing time if — for reasons within or without McSorley’s control — the Nits can’t keep the Rose Bowl hopes alive. Perhaps not the insane time-sharing plan the Joe Paterno regime used in 2011 with Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden, but at least some meaningful snaps or Stevens.
But I’m just one guy. More observers should be chiming in on this so long as McSorley is completing less than half of his passes in Big Ten play. He’s been fine, but he’s not been so good that there should be group-think coalescing around him being the obvious choice for Penn State in a season that increasingly has a chance to be a statement that it’s back among the relevant in the college football landscape.