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How Penn State uses QB Trace McSorley in one of the nation’s most creative offenses

This guy’s development is a big reason the Nittany Lions are division champs.

Michigan State v Penn State Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The quarterback position at Penn State has had a strange path the last few seasons. The natural, Christian Hackenberg, was anointed the savior for sticking with the school through NCAA sanctions. His career was marred by bad offensive line play and created a chicken/egg dilemma. Was Hackenberg bad, or was the line to blame?

In the offseason, as many as three quarterbacks were in the mix ahead of a high-stakes year for coach James Franklin. Redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley won out, and it certainly looks like the right call. With an offense that ranks No. 10 in explosiveness and has the third-best passing efficiency, according to S&P+, the Big Ten East champs are clicking at the best time of the year. McSorley is third in the conference in passing yards per game (with 248). He boasts a stellar touchdown-to-interception ratio of 21-to-5.

Running back Saquon Barkley probably won’t be 100 percent for the Big Ten Championship after suffering an ankle injury against Michigan State. But McSorley is the engine that really makes this offense go, and I’d argue a more indispensable player, especially as defenses key on Barkley. So how does he do it?

“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” is a statement about mobile quarterbacks.

McSorley carries the ball about 11 times per game. Like many mobile quarterbacks, he often makes chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what. He has the conventional set of unconventional-QB skills.

This is how a forced throw or an incompletion by one quarterback is another’s first down.

But new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead — who’s modernized PSU’s attack after scoring a lot of points in FCS — is able to use McSorley as a running back with designed runs as well. It helps Penn State, because they’ll have an extra blocker (in this case, the running back).

Here, Penn State attempts to roll with a pin-pull blocking scheme, in which the tight end blocks down and the tackle pulls around the outside. It doesn’t work, thanks to potential All-American Ejuan Price’s penetration, but the point is how PSU can use McSorley in unconventional ways.

This was the second game of the season, and Penn State’s offense was still developing. By Game 9, Penn State was doing much more deceptive stuff to use McSorley’s wheels in combination with Barkley’s game-breaking ability.

Because of how Iowa played this play, Penn State employed the inverted veer trap, similar to how Ohio State played the Hawkeyes a few years ago. But instead of using a wing back to block the linebacker at the second level, McSorley reads him and thus prevents him from tackling anyone, without anyone needing to lay a hand on him.

Two plays later, McSorley showed off his arm, hitting a TD play-action pass. But it wasn’t just any play-action.

And Penn State can show some mid-line option, as well, but in a way I’ve never seen it done. It borrows from the Chip Kelly variation of the Vince Lombardi sweep play. But instead of blocking one of the interior linemen, Penn State leaves him be, and lets McSorley “block” him.

But sometimes Penn State doesn’t even have to scheme it up for McSorley. He can take things into his own hands and make magic.

It’s not that McSorley runs all the time. It’s the threat of the run and the different things the Nittany Lions can do with it, that has Penn State opponents shook.

But he can throw, too.

You want to see him wing the pig with athleticism? Well my friend, you’ve come to the right place.

Sparty was hell-bent on not letting McSorley run. In that respect, they succeeded (he had 14 carries for only 40 yards). But he lit them up in the passing game, to the tune of 17-of-23 passing for 376 yards (a career-high).

He’s got the throws in the toolbox. He can hit short.

And don’t sleep on the ball placement. It was out in front of Barkley (maybe even too out in front of him), meaning it allowed Barkley to continue moving toward during the catch.

He can hit a medium sideline throw, and in the teeth of a pass rush.

And this is just about the longest frozen-rope throw you can make on a football field.

And when he needs to go deep, he’s lethal. Seven completions against Michigan State went for 20 or more yards, giving him 56 on the season (fifth nationally).

Headed into today, McSorley and the Penn State offense was second in the nation in passes over 40 yards — and he completed three more against a Spartan defense that had previously been known for pass defense. He set a Nittany Lion record on Saturday for total offense in a season with 3,348 yards — and he still has two more games to go.

One of those games is Saturday, for a Big Ten Championship that could have not come more improbably. Nobody saw Penn State coming, and no one saw McSorley leading the charge.

But now you do.