STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Trace McSorley isn’t offended when he sees defenders packing the line of scrimmage, knowing their primary goal is to stop the electric running back lined up next to or behind him on any given play.
The Penn State quarterback is content to build his own reputation as a playmaker, and eventually, a downfield-passer to be reckoned with.
Although he and the rest of Penn State’s new-look offense started slowly in a 33-13 win over Kent State on Saturday, McSorley believes he made positive first steps toward that goal.
“When you’ve got Saquon (Barkley) in the backfield, teams are going to try to stop him,” McSorley said. “The first two drives we kind of got stalled out. The third drive we were able to get some first downs, push the ball down the field a little bit to our receivers to loosen them up a little bit and let Saquon get loose a couple of times.”
Barkley finished with 105 yards rushing, and Tyler Davis chipped in two field goals for the Nittany Lions. A 29-yard field goal in the second quarter gave Penn State a 16-13 halftime lead that grew as an opportunistic defense settled in and McSorley found receivers down the field.
After hitting DaeSean Hamilton for a short touchdown pass in the first, McSorley slung a ball to Mike Gesicki for 30 yards to cap the scoring with less than two minutes to go. It was a satisfying finish for the quarterback who’d tried to stretch Kent State’s underrated front seven early with deep throws to Saeed Blacknall and Gesicki that just missed.
In the process, McSorley showed off own grittiness as a runner, chipping in 47 yards on the ground and lowering his head to finish off tacklers.
“I thought his composure was really good,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “That’s just kind of who he is.”
Amani Oruwariye returned an interception for a score in the third quarter for the Nittany Lions who battered a trio of Kent State quarterbacks, sacking them seven times and forcing two more turnovers.
Shane Hynes kicked two field goals for Kent State, and Elcee Refuge returned a McSorley fumble for a touchdown in the second quarter.
ALL OR NOTHING FRONT
Penn State safety Marcus Allen said earlier this week he and his defensive teammates had something to prove even after being ranked among the best defenses in college football each of the past two years.
He understands losing three defensive linemen to the NFL will generate questions of the new guys. After Saturday’s sack-filled performance, they have plenty to be proud of. But scrambling quarterbacks are still a problem.
Kent State’s threesome of Justin Agner, Mylik Mitchell and George Bollas combined for 50 first-half yards on in scrambles or designed quarterbacks runs. Many came up the middle where defensive tackles Parker Cothren and Kevin Givens made their first career starts.
“It was either a sack or it was a scramble for a first down,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to do a better job with our rush lanes on that side of the ball.”
Perhaps Penn State’s greatest strength is the versatility it has among its back seven.
The Nittany Lions showed a multitude of nickel looks with different linebacker and corner combinations. Penn State deployed a total of eight defensive backs and five linebackers to limit 129 yards on just 14-of-28 passing.
“We’ve always been underrated since we’ve been here,” Oruwariye said.
KENT STATE: The Golden Flashes haven’t had much going for them offensively in quite a while, but their defense remains stout enough to give them hope.
Kent State’s front seven kept the game within reach by limiting Barkley’s running room early. Vaunted pass-rusher Terence Waugh killed a big wave of Penn State momentum midway through the second quarter when he hammered McSorley from his blindside, forcing a fumble that Refuge returned for a touchdown to tie the game 13-13. If Waugh can keep making plays, the Golden Flashes will have chances to turn games around.
PENN STATE: A coordinator change doesn’t guarantee immediate success. Saturday’s sluggish start and uneven performance shows Joe Moorhead’s offense will need more time for all its parts to get on the same page.
And the sooner the better as games loom against No. 7 Michigan, No. 6 Ohio State, and Maryland, teams that hung at least 52 points on its opponents in their openers. A bunch of missed tackles against Kent State is further evidence that Penn State’s offense will have to pull more weight than it has in the two previous years when elite defenses could bail it out.
Kent State will try to snap its six-game losing streak when it hosts FCS foe North Carolina A&T next Saturday.
Penn State and Pittsburgh will renew a long-dormant rivalry when the Nittany Lions travel to Heinz Field next Saturday for the first game in a home-and-home series. Penn State leads the series 50-42-4 and has won seven of the last eight. Pittsburgh won the last meeting 12-0 in 2000.