How Are Trace McSorley and the Penn State Passing Game Faring Through the First Two Weeks of the Season?

By Nick Polak on September 12, 2018 at 8:13 am
Sep 8, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley (9) looks to pass against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the first quarter at Heinz Field.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Should you be worried about the seemingly slow start to the year for Penn State's aerial attack and quarterback Trace McSorley? No, not really.

But hey, there are some people out there who are slightly concerned about the lack of prolific passing numbers for Trace McSorley through the first two weeks of the season. To truly get a sense of if there are any issues worth monitoring, let's break down McSorley's season to date, as well as the passing game as a whole.

The Raw Stats

Trace McSorley Through Two Games
2016 541 3 1 30 0
2017 444 5 2 113 1
2018 375 3 0 89 3

On the surface, you can see where someone's concern could stem from (rational or not). While McSorley's touchdown-to-interception is a clean 3-0, his yardage has decreased for a second straight year.

However, there are two pretty clear explanations for that. Firstly, the Pitt game was played in a moderate monsoon. The run game was clearly the priority, and though he still chucked the ball 30 times, the conditions were hardly ideal for big yardage through the air.

Secondly, and most pertinently, nine of McSorley's "incompletions" this year have been the result of some pretty bad drops by his receivers. Of those nine dropped passes, at least three of them would have gone for 25 yards or more had they been caught. Now, playing revisionist history is a fool's errand due to the unknowable butterfly effect that would have taken place, but at least two of those drops directly led to punts. It's not too difficult to see where those 75 extra yards could have come from to catch up with 2017's numbers.

It's also worth noting, however, that McSorley has been nearly as productive on the ground yardage-wise, and has been a deadly threat with his legs near the end zone in 2018.

The Efficiency

Trace McSorley Through Two Games
  Completions/Attempts Completion % Avg. Efficiency Rating Yards per Carry
2016 40/66 60.1% 140.75 1.3
2017 33/53 62.3% 157.75 5.65
2018 35/66 53% 115.25 5.24

Here is where your gripes, if you have them, would be somewhat warranted. However, the drops play even more of a factor here than the raw counting stats. If we assume that even just seven of the nine drops are caught (all nine were very catchable balls), McSorley's completion percentage would quickly rise to 63.6%. So clearly, simply analyzing these numbers as they are is a bit unfair to the star quarterback.

When analyzing the passing offense as a whole, however, this chart paints an accurate picture of what the story has been. Whether it be DeAndre Thompkins (three drops) or Juwan Johnson (four drops), the passing game just hasn't quite been in total sync yet. It's a bit unfair to truly judge the group given Saturday night's weather, but it's not as if the Big Ten is known for delivering ideal weather conditions as we get deeper into the season.

If the drops are truly just a case of early-season hiccups and tough weather conditions, then the problem should correct itself moving forward. If there's more to it than that, though, expect the coaching staff to continue making tweaks to the lineup.

With that in mind, let's take a look at what the receivers have done through two games.

The Pass-Catchers

Receiving Numbers Through Two Games
  Targets Catches Yards YArds per Catch Drops Catch Efficiency
K.j. Hamler 13 7 108 15.4 1 87.5%
Juwan Johnson 16 8 90 11.3 4 66.67%
Brandon Polk 5 4 64 16 0 100%
Jonathan Holland 5 4 61 15.3 0 100%
Miles Sanders 4 4 25 6.5 0 100%
Mark Allen 4 4 25 6.3 0 100%
danny Dalton 5 3 19 6.3 0 100%
Mac Hippenhammer 3 1 11 11.0 0 100%
Pat Freiermuth 3 1 5 5 1 50%
DeAndre Thompkins 6 0 0 0 3 0%

I defined "Catch Efficiency" as the catch percentage on what I deemed "catchable" balls upon rewatching both games.

I think this is where we have the biggest departure from the past two years. In both 2016 and 2017, Penn State's top receiving targets hit the ground running and never looked back. In 2016, Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, and Mike Gesicki provided reliable targets for McSorley right away. In 2017, Hamilton, Gesicki, and Saquon Barkley were hot to start the year.

In 2018, however, Juwan Johnson has struggled a bit to start things off. He still has decent numbers, especially given the weather, but the team will need more efficiency from the man who is supposed to be their number one target.

K.J. Hamler has been a revelation to start the season, which is great news for Penn State given that Thompkins has had as rough a start as anyone, at least as a receiver. While he's not someone who is expected to catch 60 balls this season, they could certainly use his field-stretching ability opposite of Johnson, and his presence provides far less of a threat if he's not catching the football.

All in all, while it hasn't been an ideal start to the season for Ricky Rahne's passing attack, it really hasn't been all that different from past years after you adjust for the drops. That being said, drops are part of the game, and the staff needs to figure out what has to be done in order to correct those mistakes. The forecast is calling for another chance of rain this Saturday, but Kent State this Saturday, and Illinois the following Friday, will be the last two chances for McSorley and the receivers to find their groove before Ohio State comes to town.

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