STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It’s hard to find any faults in Trace McSorley’s game right now. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, whose team will have to defend the dual-threat star on Saturday, can’t pinpoint any.
But McSorley’s coach can. Penn State’s all-time leader in nearly every passing category is doing too much.
“In general, my concern right now is Trace is carrying too much of the load on offense,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “That’s something that we need to do a better job of. We need more players having a bigger impact on the game on offense.”
If No. 17 Penn State (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) wants to keep its outside shot at a conference title intact, it’ll definitely need more from the cast around McSorley when No. 17 Iowa (6-1, 3-1) visits Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
The Hawkeyes have found some momentum since a 28-17 loss to Wisconsin a month ago. They’ve won three straight in which they’ve averaged 38 points per game and will arrive in Happy Valley with the country’s third-ranked defense in tow.
Coming off a 23-0 shutout against Maryland, the Hawkeyes are allowing just 258 yards per game and get a Penn State team that’s sputtered on offense mightily compared to the last two seasons where Joe Moorhead called the plays.
But with Moorhead now at Mississippi State, former tight ends coach Ricky Rahne hasn’t been able to coax as much out of an offense still loaded with talent, especially along the offensive line and at running back.
Drops by a green wideout corps have hurt as have a bunch of penalties that have forced the Nittany Lions into unfavorable situations to try and convert third downs. Overall, Penn State is 93rd nationally on third-down conversions having found success on just 35 of 95 attempts.
So Rahne’s continued to dial up his best player and keep the ball in McSorley’s hands when possible.
The fifth-year senior has averaged 18 carries per game over the past four weeks. Before that, his career average was 10 carries per game. His 554 rushing yards are by far a career high.
“I want to do whatever I need to do to help our team win,” McSorley said. “If that’s carrying the ball however many times, throwing it, whatever it might be. To me, I really haven’t felt like there’s been a big burden or felt like I’m shouldering too much of a load or whatever Coach was saying.”
But as opponents have remained in games, Penn State’s been forced to lean on McSorley’s arm more too. He attempted 74 and 76 fourth-quarter passes in each of his first two seasons as a starter but is on pace for 98 fourth-quarter dropbacks this season.
That might not be a recipe for success against a Hawkeye defensive line that’s loaded with big, rangy pass rushers who have nine of their 22 sacks over the last three games.
“He can really beat you with his feet or his arm,” Ferentz said. “But beyond that, the most impressive thing to me is just what he brings to his team. And I think it’s true of every quarterback; really good quarterbacks bring a lot of value to the team and are really meaningful to a team’s success. I think he really epitomizes that.”
Ferentz has seen it firsthand.
McSorley’s completed 42 of 66 passes for 524 yards with three touchdowns and an interception and has added 31 carries for 101 yards and another score against Iowa in his career.
Ferentz could only watch as McSorley led a 12-play, 80-yard drive capped by a 7-yard touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson last season that snapped a 3-0 start for the Hawkeyes.
“If he’s in the huddle, those guys — I can’t read minds, but I’m guessing all 11 of those guys felt like they were going to get it done last year against us,” Ferentz said.