It’s Entirely Possible That Trace McSorley Is Fine

By Len Damico on October 2, 2017 at 10:00 am
Sep 30, 2017; State College, PA, USA; Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley heads off the field after a college football game against Indiana at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Long/Lebanon Daily News via USA TODAY NETWORK
Jeremy Long/Lebanon Daily News via USA TODAY NETWORK
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If this is a slow start, I’ll take it.

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing Trace McSorley's 2017 performance on RLR. The overarching theme has been “Well, Trace doesn’t quite look as sharp as he did last year.” My own naked-eye viewing tells me that something is just slightly off, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. And yet, after five games, Penn State sits at 5-0, is averaging 41.4 points per game and has racked up almost 300 yards per game through the air.

So: are our eyes lying to us? Or is something actually “wrong” with Trace McSorley in 2017? What's been the difference between "The Wizard" of late 2016 and this year's Trace? Let’s look at some numbers to find out.

Slow starts? 

Here's McSorley's game log for the first five games in 2016 and 2017.

2016 Through 5 games
Opponent Comp Att Yards TD Int Rush Yards TD
Kent State 16 31 209 2 0 14 47 0
Pitt 24 35 332 1 1 9 -17 0
Temple 18 24 287 1 1 9 8 1
Michigan 16 27 121 1 1 9 -6 0
Minnesota 19 41 335 1 0 8 73 1
Totals 93 158 1284 6 3 49 105 2
2017 Through 5 games
Opponent Comp Att Yards TD Int Rush Yards TD
Akron 18 25 289 2 1 12 48 1
Pitt 15 28 164 3 1 8 65 0
GSU 18 23 309 4 0 3 24 1
Iowa 31 48 284 1 1 17 61 0
Indiana 23 36 315 2 1 16 -19 1
Totals 105 160 1361 12 4 56 179 3
2016 THROUGH 5 GAMES vs. 2017 through 5 games
year Completion % Yards per attempt Td/int ratio Rush yards/game TOTAL TD/GAME
2016, Games 1-5 59% 8.1 6/3 21 1.8
2017, Games 1-5 66% 8.5 12/4 36 3

Huh. Turns out, through 5 games, 2017 Trace is actually better than 2016 Trace in nearly every measurable way. Better completion percentage, slightly more yards per attempt, better TD/INT ratio, more rushing yards, more total touchdowns. This kind of makes sense, because McSorley has already had a year in the system and is a year older, wiser, etc. But why does it feel different?

Maybe we’ve still got “The Wizard” stuck in our heads from last year. Recency bias is a real thing. Let’s compare his average per-game numbers from all of 2016 (including his torrid second half) to 2017 to date: 

All of 2016 vs. 2017 through 5 games
year Completion % Yards per attempt Td/int ratio Rush yards/game total tD/Game
All of 2016 58% 9.3 29/8 26 2.6
2017, Games 1-5 66% 8.5 12/4 36 3

So, 2017 Trace is completing more of his passes for slightly fewer yards per attempt. Aside from that, he's roughly on track with last year.

What's going on?

So, the numbers don't necessarily support the narrative that McSorley is having a slow start to the year, but our eyes are telling us that something's off. What could it be?

  • The run-pass option and read-option plays that are the hallmark of Penn State's offense rely on timing and rhythm. Both the mechanics and the decision-making of the mesh point have seemed a little rusty.
  • The receiving corps has struggled to consistently get open. We're also still waiting for a true number one receiving threat to emerge and replace Chris Godwin for those contested deep balls we saw so often in the second half of last year. 
  • The right side of the offensive line has been, to be kind, a bit of a turnstile for much of the year to date. Constant pressure has led to Trace being forced to climb up in the pocket, rather than escaping outside and making magic on the move, as he did so often last year. 

Any or all of these factors could explain why McSorley, while productive, hasn't looked quite as crisp in 2017.

Off to the races

McSorley's 2016 was among the most productive years a quarterback has ever had at Penn State, and numbers-wise, he's off to an even better start in 2017. What might we expect for the rest of this season? Let’s see how McSorley's 2016 broke down after his first 5 games.

2016, Before and After Game 6
year Completion % Yards per attempt Td/int ratio Rush yards/game TOTAL TD/GAME
2016, Games 1-5 59% 8.1 6/3 21 1.8
2016, Games 6-14 57% 10.4 19/2 27 3

Two more yards per attempt is kind of nuts, as is that TD/INT ratio. If these splits are any indication, perhaps Trace McSorley can even exceed the dizzying heights he achieved last year.

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