Conventional wisdom says Penn State has surged into the Top 10 on the strength of its rushing attack, led by dynamic Heisman Trophy-contending running back Saquon Barkley.
That wisdom isn’t wrong, per se, because Barkley has been putting up huge numbers for weeks.
It is, however, incomplete, because it really undersells the contributions that Penn State’s downfield passing game has made to its first six-game Big Ten winning streak since 1994, the latest victory coming in a 45-31 triumph Saturday at Indiana.
First-year coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense has, for weeks, been rather stingy in the passing attempts department. That’s why veteran receivers DaeSean Hamilton and Chris Godwin, among others, are on pace for big drops relative to their raw totals in former coordinator John Donovan’s offense.
Check out these yards per reception numbers through 10 games, though:
- Godwin — 15.2 yards per reception
- Hamilton — 14.7
- Barkley — 17.1
- Saeed Blacknall — 27.2
- DeAndre Thompkins — 18.6
- Mike Gesicki — 13.5
This is reflective of a concerted Penn State effort to throw passes well down the field, with the goal of forcing defenses to choose between creeping up to stop the run, exposing themselves to big gainers, or pulling defenders off the line to guard against the deep ball, leaving space for the running game to exploit.
Most Penn State opponents have chosen the latter route this year, to their detriment. McSorley hasn’t completed a ton of long passes. (The completion percentage naturally drops the further downfield one throws, even as it’s obvious that there are some overthrows he’d probably like to have back.) But he’s hit enough receivers that it’s kept defenses honest and given Barkley lots of room to maneuver in the zone-read run schemes.
One sets up the other pretty nicely if defenses respond how Penn State hopes.
Indiana didn’t take that route, though. The Hoosiers sold out to stop the run and did an effective job, limiting Barkley to 58 yards on 33 carries and Penn State overall to a 1.7 yards per carry average.
The problem for them was that this opened up a lot of space downfield. McSorley attempted more passes than he had in any game since the win against Minnesota, and his 16 completions went for a brutally efficient average of 20.8 yards.
Perhaps no play highlighted this quandary for Indiana more than the 54-yard flea-flicker pass it gave up to set up Penn State’s go-ahead touchdown. The Hoosiers crowded the line of scrimmage and stonewalled Barkley on the handoff, but Barkley cooly flipped the ball back to McSorley, who found Hamilton wide open down the middle of the field for a back-breaking gain. Barkley ran for a touchdown shortly thereafter.
The overall result was Penn State driving for the 31 points it needed to stay in the game regardless of the running game’s tough day, leaving two other touchdowns — one scored after Indiana muffed a punt inside its 10-yard line, the other on a fumble that was returned to the end zone — to make the difference.
It’s true that Penn State’s zone-read run schemes have been devastating at times this season, and that remains a big reason why the Nits have been so dangerous offensively. But Moorhead’s insistence on throwing downfield —and not settling for short and intermediate routes when the running game is struggling — must be acknowledged as a big factor, as well.
It set up the run for weeks, and then it bailed Penn State out when it needed it most, with Barkley and Co. struggling and the defense itself having trouble keeping the top on Indiana’s offense.
This space has been critical of McSorley’s passing abilities, and Saturday I wondered aloud whether an injury that took him off the field early in the game was affecting his ability to execute reads in the running game. To his credit, though, McSorley — gimpy or not — hit the passes he needed to and proved that he doesn’t have to be a run-first quarterback to be effective, throwing for 332 yards and two touchdowns to limit the damage from two uncharacteristic interceptions.
All the more reason that Penn State will remain dangerous in these last two weeks of the regular season and into the postseason, despite Indiana finding ways to slow it down a little bit Saturday.