IOWA CITY – Trace McSorley doesn’t take it for granted.
The Penn State quarterback appreciates every piece of skill he has at his disposal as he orchestrates the fourth-rated Nittany Lions’ offense.
“Those guys, they have so much natural ability,’’ McSorley said Wednesday. “The way they can make plays by themselves, the way they work with the ball in their hand, it gives you a lot of confidence as a quarterback. I think we take the pressure off each other.’’
McSorley will have it all at his disposal Saturday when Penn State opens its Big Ten schedule with a 6:30 p.m. game at Iowa, where the Hawkeyes are preparing for the thrill of the hunt.
“You go from looking at one guy to the next, they’re all great players and guys that we have to get ready to deal with,’’ Iowa linebacker Bo Bower said. “We have to be at our best, because we know they are bringing their best.’’
At running back, preseason all-American running back Saquon Barkley has grown his game as a receiver in addition to averaging 102.3 rushing yards per game. He also averages 80.3 receiving yards per game and has averaged 26.8 yards in his first season as the Nittany Lions’ primary kick returner.
Preseason all-American tight end Mike Gesicki has been McSorley’s top target with 12 receptions so far this season and with 170 catches in his career, receiver DaeSean Hamilton continues to close in on Penn State’s career receiving record of 179.
“They bring so much to the table and it’s all a part of the reason that we’ve had the type of success that we’ve had,’’ McSorley said.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t discount the contributions of the 6-foot, 195-pound junior quarterback.
“He’s kind of the guy that makes it all go,’’ Ferentz said Tuesday. “He really does a good job with how he operates that offense. He’s patient, all those kinds of things. They just put pressure on you at every position. It makes it really difficult.’’
The Hawkeyes got a taste of what McSorley was dishing out last season when the Nittany Lions picked apart the Iowa defense for 599 yards in a 41-14 win over the Hawkeyes – five yards shy of the most yards allowed by a Ferentz-coached Hawkeye team.
It was a day when about the only thing Iowa did right was win the coin toss.
McSorley completed 11-of-18 passes in the game for 240 yards and ran for an additional 40 yards while throwing two touchdown passes and rushing for a touchdown.
“He’s pretty interesting,’’ Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said. “He can run with it and he can throw. You have to play assignment-driven football this week with him. You have to have guys in the pocket who understand that they have to keep him contained.’’
That didn’t happen at Beaver Stadium a year ago in a game that got away from the Hawkeyes quickly.
Barkley recalled that Penn State’s emphasis in that game was getting off to a fast start, something that did materialize as he rushed for 167 yards and helped the Nittany Lions open a 24-7 halftime lead by busting loose for a 57-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
“We weren’t ready for what they were dishing out,’’ Bower said.
McSorley believes he knows what to expect from the Hawkeyes.
“They try to beat you with fundamentals,’’ McSorley said. “They’re going to do what they do and they typically do it very well. That is the challenge you face when you face Iowa.’’
It helps to have options and McSorley understands that.
“The consistency in the way the guys around me are playing puts me in a position when the only decisions I have to make are good ones,’’ McSorley said.
Bower said McSorley’s ability to run and throw only adds to the challenge the Hawkeyes’ face.
“When you’ve got a dual guy like that, it’s hard, but as long as everybody is playing their fits and doing the things they have to do on certain calls, we’ll be just fine,’’ Bower said.
Cornerback Josh Jackson said the Hawkeyes’ eyes have to be in the right place, not biting on play action or pump fakes.
“We have to play our keys,’’ Jackson said. “We can’t get away from that.’’
It’s that trust in the system combined with effective execution which matters most.
Jewell calls it a necessity in dealing with the Penn State offense.
“We’re not the fastest guys, especially the linebacker crew,’’ Jewell said. “You have to choose the right angles to kick them out of the right people or cut the ball off to bring it in to everybody else.’’
Then, it becomes a group effort.
“Gang tackling is going to be important,’’ Bower said. “It’s important every game, but they try to run outside or throw a screen, you have to rally to it. Any kind of play, you have to rally to it, especially when it’s in space. That will be crucial, especially in this game.’’
Iowa learned a year ago what can happen when that doesn’t happen.
“We have to be at our best as a team,’’ said free safety Amani Hooker, who is expected to make his first career start against Penn State. “We have to play defense as a team, fill our assignments and not try to do somebody else’s job. If we do that, we know we’ll be fine.’’