It looks like Penn State found its next quarterback.
The Nittany Lions appeared primed for a blowout loss at the hands of Georgia when starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg went down with a shoulder injury in the second quarter of the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl. Then, redshirt freshman Trace McSorely cemented himself into Penn State’s future.
After struggling for most of the game, McSorely came alive in the fourth quarter. The backup led two scoring drives to nearly bring Penn State back from a 24-3 deficit before falling short 24-17. He finished the game with 147 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Considering he came off of the bench against a top SEC defense for his first career meaningful action, McSorely was quite impressive.
Since arriving on campus in 2013, Hackenberg has been a stalwart in the Penn State offense. He played pretty much all of the Nittany Lions’ snaps in that time, per ESPN Stats and Info:
Entering today, Christian Hackenberg had thrown 96% of Penn State's passes since start of 2013, highest rate in Big Ten over the span— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 2, 2016
This did not allow much of an opportunity for any quarterbacks to earn some experience behind Hackenberg. With the junior reportedly leaving for the NFL, finding his replacement greatly impacts the future of the program. McSorely helped answer that question Saturday. He also received praise from head coach James Franklin:
Franklin says he didn't need to speak to the team after Hackenberg's injury. They were confident in McSorley and made plays for him.— Onward State (@OnwardState) January 2, 2016
Standing at 6’1” and just under 200 pounds, McSorely does not have the NFL size and arm talent of Hackenberg. However, he is much more mobile and he showed some nice accuracy late in the game, particularly on this touchdown throw to DaeSean Hamilton:
No Hackenberg, no problem? Without its injured QB, Penn St scores 14 unanswered to pull within 7 of UGA on ESPN: https://t.co/KYoun0UXYn— ESPN (@espn) January 2, 2016
McSorely flashed his dual-threat ability throughout the game as well. He ran seven times for 31 yards, including a 14-yard scramble on Penn State’s final drive. The Nittany Lions’ offensive line struggled mightily to protect Hackenberg in 2015 as only seven teams allowed more sacks than Penn State’s 39. As PennLive’s Bob Flounders noted, it was surprising Hackenberg avoided injury for so long:
Hackenberg made 26 starts the last 2 years behind a bad O-line; That he made it through the first 25 without serious injury is the surprise— Bob Flounders (@BobbyFlo7) January 2, 2016
McSorely’s mobility gives him an advantage over Hackenberg against the rampant pressure opposing defenses generated against Penn State. He can extend plays by getting out of the pocket and avoiding many of the hits his predecessor suffered.
He also gives the offense more versatility. New offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead can utilize McSorely’s legs by mixing in zone-reads or more rollout passes. Expect Moorhead implement these to give Penn State more options offensively.
The offense will have plenty of weapons surrounding McSorely. Running back Saquon Barkley led all freshmen nationally in rushing yards and was the only frosh to top 1,000 yards on the ground. He is one of the Big Ten’s brightest young stars who should relieve pressure off of McSorely in the run and pass game.
What did McSorely's performance say about Penn State's future at quarterback?
Hamilton and fellow receiver Chris Godwin are only sophomores as they lead a unit that is expected to return its top five yardage contributors. McSorely found some chemistry late with these guys and that should only increase the more he plays. He will need to improve his completion percentage in order to accomplish this, as he went a mediocre 14-for-27 Saturday.
It was only one game, and really one successful quarter, but Penn State and its fans can breathe a little easier when thinking about the future of the quarterback position. McSorely showed poise and an array of skills against an excellent defense and look for him to build on that possibly as soon as next season.