A Confusing and Unnecessary Quarterback Rotation Made a Bad Day Worse for Penn State

By Nick Polak on November 5, 2018 at 2:41 pm
Nov 3, 2018; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley (9) passes in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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Trace McSorley has given this Penn State program his blood, sweat, and tears over the past five seasons. From the moment he stepped onto the field for meaningful snaps as a redshirt freshman against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl, he's done everything asked of him. He led this program to a Big Ten championship, a Rose Bowl berth, a Fiesta Bowl win, back-to-back 11-win seasons, holds nearly every quarterback record there is to hold for Penn State, and has been a straight up war daddy from day one. He's more than earned the trust of the coaching staff, and when he says "I'm good," they're inclined to listen.

But for all the greatness McSorley's "never-say-die" attitude has directly led to, it was a hindrance on Saturday. Don't get me wrong, if you gave me the chance, I would go through a wall for No. 9 without hesitation. But on Saturday, against arguably the best defense in the country, Penn State needed him to play his best game of the season. And as it turns out, that's difficult to do with an injured right leg.

The passing chart for this game will be up on Tuesday, but let me summarize it for you quickly here: It was bad. McSorley finished the day 5/13 for 83 yards. There were a few drops, yes, but there were also multiple poorly-thrown passes and a terrible miss of a wide-open DeAndre Thompkins for a sure touchdown. I'm not a doctor, nor am I a football coach, but I've seen enough of McSorley over the years to know he's a more accurate passer than what we saw on Saturday, and I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that an injured drive leg played a gigantic part in it.

tommy
On a day in which McSorley clearly wasn't going to get it done, at least Stevens could have provided something different with his legs. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Do you need more proof? How about the fact that McSorley only rushed the ball seven times (five of the "rushes" on the ESPN chart are sacks) against a defense that's only real weakness has been containing mobile quarterbacks? The last time he had that few carries in a game was the Pitt game when the running backs were carrying the load on the ground. It was abundantly clear that our beloved McSorley wasn't himself and that he was clearly being hobbled by his right leg.

So though it happened later in the game than it should have, the coaching staff finally inserted backup quarterback Tommy Stevens into the game with a minute left in the third quarter, already down 21-0.

(Full disclosure: I think Tommy Stevens has a chance to be very good next year, and I think he deserves the starting job in 2019. I like Sean Clifford a lot, but I think Stevens is the better choice for this team at this point. If you think that's shading my opinion here, so be it.)

There was absolutely no reason to put McSorley back on the field where he was clearly in danger of re-aggravating his injury, but they did.

As you surely know, Stevens proceeded to throw a shockingly terrible pass right into the arms of Brandon Watson, who returned it for a touchdown to go up 28-0. There's no two ways about it, it was an awful throw. Whether Stevens simply got his wires crossed on where he was trying to throw it or he was trying to pull the ball back and just couldn't stop his arm at that point is irrelevant, it happened and it was bad. But what happened next was arguably worse.

After the game, when asked about the interception, Franklin is quoted as saying, “We can’t turn the ball over in those situations. So we felt like we had to go back to Trace.”

My question here is why? You made the decision to go to Stevens when you were down by 21 points. The offense hadn't done anything to that point and your starting quarterback was clearly hurting. Your backup quarterback made a poor decision and pass that led to seven points, but had broken off an 18-yard run just before that (again, keep in mind that Michigan's one defensive weakness is mobile quarterbacks). The only thing about the game situation that had changed was the deficit was now 28 points instead of 21. And yet, Franklin decided to go back to McSorley.

As expected, McSorley got sacked and clearly aggravated his injured leg on the very first play, leading to Stevens being reinserted into the lineup for the next play (the quarter ended in between the two plays). Stevens finished the drive, AND THEN MCSORLEY CAME BACK ONTO THE FIELD AGAIN for the drive after that. He promptly threw a pass behind Nick Bowers that was deflected and intercepted. Stevens would take over from there, leading the only scoring drive of the day in the waning moments of the game.

I didn't walk away from Saturday's game frustrated by the final score. This was a Michigan team on the top of their game playing against a mistake-prone and rebuilding Penn State team, so this outcome made sense. I did walk away frustrated, confused, and upset about how the quarterback situation was handled. There was absolutely no reason for McSorley to be put back onto the field twice after being taken out due to injury/poor play. None. And from the sound of it, there wasn't much of an explanation at all given to either quarterback.

This excerpt from the John McGonigal's piece for the Centre Daily Times tells it all when it comes to how in the dark the two signal callers were.

Stevens said, “No,” when asked if he was given a reason as to why he was pulled post-INT. McSorley wasn’t given a reason why he was put back in, either.

“Coach Franklin came over and said, ‘You’re going back in,’” McSorley recalled. “That’s how that went down.”

I completely understand that Franklin trusts McSorley. The two have been tied together since the Virginia-native was committed to play for Franklin at Vanderbilt. But what went on in Ann Arbor with his playing time was a disaster. There was absolutely no reason to put McSorley back on the field where he was clearly in danger of re-aggravating his injury, but they did. There was absolutely no reason to put him back on the field after he did re-aggravate his injury, but they did!

I still think James Franklin is a great football coach, and that the ceiling of what a team recruited and coached by him can do still has not been reached, but he let his team down on Saturday with the manner in which he dealt with McSorley and Stevens. One poor quarterback decision shouldn't change his reputation as a coach, but Franklin and his staff need to seriously evaluate what McSorley can and can't do ahead of this weekend's must-win game against Wisconsin. If the senior quarterback looks the way he did against Michigan, they need to do him and the team a favor and let Stevens (or even Clifford!) take over in his stead.

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