Heart of the Lions

Tim May
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley has a knack for conjuring a big play just when a defense thinks it has him stopped. [Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times]

Penn State lost star running back Saquon Barkley. It lost star tight end Mike Gesicki. This was supposed to be a reset season for the Nittany Lions’ offense.

But when it was mentioned to Ohio State coach Urban Meyer on Tuesday that Penn State leads the nation in scoring at 55.5 points per game, just ahead of No. 2 OSU (54.5), he pointed out the main reason why the Nittany Lions still have that big bite. Quarterback Trace McSorley hasn’t gone anywhere.

“The quarterback is the guy who gets this thing going,” Meyer said. “They’ve got a good scheme for what his skill set is, and what makes the whole thing go is his competitive spirit. That’s what makes their offense so good.”

Meyer brought up the Penn State offensive line, too, and Miles Sanders, who has stepped up capably in place of Barkley. But it’s the playmaking skills of the 6-foot, 201-pound McSorley and his never-say-die approach that have helped carry the No. 9 Nittany Lions though the transition to a 4-0 start headed into Saturday’s “White Out” grudge match with the No. 4 Buckeyes in Beaver Stadium.

OSU defensive co-coordinator Alex Grinch said thoughts of McSorley’s ability kindle memories of past QB greats.

“I think about Colt McCoy, I think about how Johnny Manziel played,” Grinch said. “You think you’ve defended the down, then he makes you wrong, and that’s a frustrating place to be. He can move the sticks even when there’s a bad play.

“I use the analogy: If you’re an offensive coordinator, he’s the greatest get-out-of-jail-free card you could have.”

Here’s the confounding thing about McSorley, though: His stats as a whole are rarely extraordinary. Currently, he ranks only seventh in the Big Ten in passing yards (190.8-yard average) and No. 8 in passing efficiency, the main reason being that he has completed just 53.8 percent of his passes.

But think back to Ohio State games the previous three years, or to a Big Ten title game win two years ago — McSorely has always been streaky, rising from the mat just when the defense thinks it has knocked him out.

On the road at Illinois on Friday night, for example, he and the Nittany Lions were languishing, trailing 24-21 to the lowly Illini in the third quarter, before McSorley, Sanders and the offense keyed a run to the final 42 points of the game in a 63-24 victory.

“He’s a winner,” said OSU linebacker Pete Werner, who might draw the assignment of spying McSorley on Saturday night in the effort to prevent a scrambling big play. “He has a lot of toughness compared to the guys we’ve faced. He probably throws a little bit better ball, but overall he has a better team, too.

“He’s just a guy that refuses to lose. He’s a winner. That’s what makes him different.”

>> Video | Pete Werner talks about Penn State QB Trace McSorley

McSorley makes up for shortcomings by orchestrating big plays. Now take a look at the one thing that has haunted the Ohio State defense through most of the first four games.

“Giving up big plays, that’s going to be the issue,” Meyer said. “We have played solid defense. We have just given up too many big plays. And this will be a tough one this week because this is a big-play offense.”

And it’s run by a big-time big-playmaker.

“I’ve watched this guy play for three years, and this is year four — his competitive spirit, it’s unique to great players,” Meyer said. “That’s what he is.”


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