Out of everyone on the Penn State and Washington rosters, it was Saquon Barkley who attracted the most attention at last Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona. Not only was the NFL Draft prospect stamped on every piece of ESPN’s promotional material for the game, but he secured an interview with SportsCenter’s Scott Van Pelt in the immediate aftermath. Make no mistake, Barkley proved his worth on the field with one of the game’s most electrifying plays and seven receptions to boot, but the reason the Lions won this game was Trace McSorley.
The junior threw a pair of critical interceptions that helped Washington keep pace with Penn State, but other than those blemishes, he was close to perfect. McSorley completed 32 of his 41 throws for 342 yards and two scores while also rushing for 60 yards on 12 carries. Most importantly, though was the continued transformation of “YOLO” McSorley to “move the chains” McSorley. There were big plays to be had, such as the quaterback’s 48-yard connection with DaeSean Hamilton that opened the scoring, but it was McSorley’s accuracy on third down that won the day.
By using his mobility to avoid the Washington pass rush and working the middle of the field masterfully, McSorley found the right man over and over again, leading the Lions to an insane 13-for-17 third down conversion rate that kept Huskies quarterback Jake Browning off the field and eventually burned up enough clock to prevent a late Washington comeback.
More and more this season, we’ve seen McSorley play to the down and distance instead of heaving the ball down field for the most exciting possible outcome. As he gains experience, the signal caller’s decision-making and instincts only continue to improve. If we see more of this McSorley in 2018, the Lions are going to be very tough to slow down on offense, and their leader could find himself in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race.
Saquon Barkley: A 92-yard touchdown burst in the second quarter allowed Barkley to go over 100 yards rushing for the fifth time this season. He also served as McSorley’s most popular outlet with a team-leading seven catches in the passing game. We know that the Lions don’t lack depth at tailback, but Barkley will be tough to replace anyway, mostly due to his great pass-blocking and receiving skills.
DaeSean Hamilton: The final game of Hamilton’s college career was one of his best, as the senior hauled in five passes for 110 yards and two scores. Although Hamilton started out as a high-volume possession receiver as a freshman in 2014, he’s raised his yards-per-catch average every year since while evolving into a big-play threat with a career-high nine touchdowns in 2017.
Juwan Johnson: Johnson only caught six balls for 66 yards on Saturday, but the last three of those all extended key Penn State drives on 3rd-and-long situations. His last reception might have been his most important, as it kept Penn State from punting back to Washington late in the fourth quarter. Although Johnson has the height of an outside receiving threat, he’s done most of his work this season in the middle of the field, where his sure hands have bailed the Lions out of trouble on many occasions. The Fiesta Bowl was just another example.