Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley graded his day harshly following a 20-7 win over Rutgers.
I don’t like it when Trace is frustrated. When he’s frustrated, I get frustrated. And the whole team gets frustrated, and Trace is the leader of the team.
Penn State's KJ Hamler, on quarterback Trace McSorley
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PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Trace McSorley normally doesn't run that hot, but the Penn State quarterback ripped off his helmet and stomped down the sideline after a first-quarter series ended meekly with a field goal.
McSorley wanted to throw into the end zone on third and goal, saw no one open, and was forced to run into the teeth of two defenders. Afterward, receiver KJ Hamler gave his senior quarterback a pep talk — just like McSorley had done at Michigan when Hamler slammed his helmet in a seething moment.
"Chill out," Hamler told McSorley, "we need you."
"I don't like it when Trace is frustrated," Hamler said after the Lions' 20-7 win over Rutgers. "When he's frustrated, I get frustrated. And the whole team gets frustrated, and Trace is the leader of the team. I've just got to keep him in a positive attitude. I don't want him to act how I did versus Michigan."
Once an offense of dazzle plays and eye-popping stats, Penn State runs a toothache now. After back-to-back 3,500-yard passing seasons, something no Penn State quarterback has done before, McSorley likely won't reach 3,000 this season.
Asked whether his passing offense can improve with one game remaining, Penn State coach James Franklin said, "Yes, I do."
Despite a career's worth of accomplishment, McSorley is desperately trying to rebuild a senior-year finish. On Saturday, McSorley became the first Penn State quarterback to win 30 games and the third Big Ten quarterback (with J.T. Barrett and Drew Brees) to be responsible for 100 career touchdowns.
Yet all he could think about was his frustrating game.
"Right now," he said, "I don't think I played all that well today."
What's happened to Penn State's passing game is a season-long study. On Saturday, for instance, McSorley started alongside four freshmen (true or redshirt) for the first time this season.
A preseason question ("Who are the playmakers?" Matt Millen asked) certainly loomed over the offense, but it shouldn't haven't been answered by so many freshmen. Hamler is the top receiver, tight end Pat Freiermuth is the leading touchdown target (six) and Jahan Dotson (Nazareth High) has climbed up the depth chart as one of the team's most reliable receivers.
Perhaps that's one reason McSorley said he's aiming instead of throwing, why he's trying to float perfection to his young crew. Drops made him hesitant early in the season. Now, McSorley is running an offense with parts that are moving all the time.
At one point Saturday, McSorley was 3 for 14 with seven straight incompletions. After Garrett Taylor delivered Penn State's second interception, McSorley went for the home run to Hamler — and threw the ball out of bounds.
"Probably just tensing up too much," McSorley said, "trying to aim it more so than throwing it and reacting and letting it go. … I'm trying to put it in the perfect spot every single time and not just sitting there like I know how."
Entering this season, McSorley already had broken the Penn State record for career 300-yard passing games (10). But he doesn't have one yet in 2018. After his 17-for-37, 183-yard game Saturday, McSorley hasn't thrown for 200 in the last four weeks.
But now, McSorley is playing with some physical limitations that appear to be hampering the rest of his game. It's probably something he'll deal with until the bowl.
Asked whether the passing game can right itself with one week left, Franklin stoically said, "Yes, I do." But the coach acknowledged that it has been a chronic concern.
"Obviously it's something that has hampered us all season long," Franklin said, "I don't think there's any doubt about that."
McSorley deserves a huge ovation next Saturday at Beaver Stadium, where he will play his final game. Penn State's last three quarterbacks (Matt McGloin, Christian Hackenberg, McSorley) all deserved them for their contributions to what Franklin called the "resurrection" of Penn State football.
Further, McSorley deserves a day to remember. The game in which he broke the wins record wasn't that. Hamler said he's determined to make it happen.