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Penn State Football: Expect Blue-White Game to be More Than a Passing Fancy

by on April 07, 2019 7:00 PM

At least five Penn State quarterbacks will take the stage at 3 p.m. on Saturday in Beaver Stadium.

If history is any indication, they’ll be throwing the football left and right — at least 50 times, and maybe more, with a few TDs to boot.

Speaking of boots, not one of those PSU QBs will be The Lion. Again.

The Lion — as in utilityman and loyalist Tommy Stevens, the blonde-maned and undergrad coed fav hair…er, heir…apparent to Trace McSorley.

For the second consecutive spring, Stevens will sit out the annual scrimmage due to a foot injury. This April, unlike the April of 2018, Stevens is trending on the healthy side, though, after foot surgery. Stevens spent last spring in a walking boot.

He’s been practicing throughout the spring, with some limitations. But it is quite unlikely that he will take the field this Saturday.

Stevens has been part of Penn State football so long that he played his first Blue-White Game back in 2015, when the other two — and only two — Nittany Lion quarterbacks that day were veteran Christian Hackenberg and signalman Billy Fessler. Hackenberg just finished a stint with the defunct AAF, while Fessler is now a grad assistant on Joe Moorhead’s staff at Mississippi State.

Things change. But Thomas Mason Stevens remains.

As a passer, Stevens’ three-game career in Blue-White games from 2015-17 has, statistically, mirrored his career in the regular season at Penn State.

In three Blue-White Games, Stevens has completed 30 of 52 passes for 325 yards, a 57.7 completion percentage, with eight TD passes, four sacks and zero picks. That has fueled his considerable promise. In three regular seasons for Penn State (2016-18), Stevens has been 24 of 41 for 394 yards, with four TD passes and one pick.

NUMBERS COUNT, SIZE MATTERS

Without Stevens on Saturday, a whole host of Penn State quarterbacks will get a look — and an opportunity. How they perform will matter.

Yes, every single toss they make in spring ball is charted — not just for completions, but whether it’s on-target, dropped or to the right receiver. Numbers count.

But, the Blue-White stage is bigger. Size matters. 

And while it won’t win or lose the starting job for Sean Clifford, the contest is another notable benchmark that James Franklin and second-year offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne will use in the 11 weeks between the annual scrimmage (Penn State’s 15th and final official spring practice) and the start of summer drills.

That’s a lot of down time, so the BW game tape could get more run inside Lasch than the Zapruder film.

Among the Nittany Lions quarterbacks next Saturday, Clifford (6-foot-2, 218 pounds), who will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall, should get the most run. With Stevens limited in practice this spring, Clifford has been getting the lion’s share — pun intended — of snaps with the first-string Penn State offense. Last year, in his Blue-White debut, Clifford completed 4 of 8 for 58 yards, with a 29-yard TD toss to Mac Hippenhammer (who is spending all of the 2019 spring season with the PSU baseball team).

Redshirt freshman Will Levis will get plenty of playing time on Saturday. He’s been the steady No. 2 QB in live drills throughout the spring and has the arm and size (6-3, 234) — a la Backledge, Collins and Hackenberg — to be a big-time passer.

A pair of early enrollees, Ta’Quan Roberson (5-11, 190) and Michael Johnson Jr. (6-2, 205) should also see plenty of snaps, as will Michael Shuster (6-2, 210), a savvy walk-on redshirt junior who was a big school success at Camp Hill. (And if you are still questioning the utility of early enrollees playing in the spring, defending national champ Clemson used 17 early enrollees in its spring game on Saturday.)

The Penn State quarterbacks will have a whole fleet of fleet — and tender — wide receivers as targets who can use the live reps that playing before #71k in Beaver Stadium provides. The result may be an aerial circus.

SPRING GAME STATS

Here’s a quick snapshot of how Franklin has approached the passing game in his first five spring games at Penn State (including last spring, when Keegan-Michael Key may, or may not, have been calling the plays):

2014 — 27 of 50 for 255 yards; 1 TD, 3 INT, 9 sacks

2015 — 25 of 50 for 255 yards; 1 TD, 1 INT, 6 sacks

2016 — 36 of 50 for 404 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT, 5 sacks

2017 — 34 of 58 for 366 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 6 sacks

2018 — 28 of 45 for 246 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT, 6 sacks

McSorley’s performance in the 2016 Blue-White Game may not have won him the starting job that subsequent August, but it certainly helped make him the clubhouse leader heading into summer drills.

In that 2016 intrasquad scrimmage, McSorley completed 18 of his 19 passes in the first half, with three TD passes, on his way to stellar performance that was a precursor of what was to come. He finished the day with four touchdown passes, and was 23 of 27 for 281 yards, with one pick and only one sack. His scoring passes were to Chris Godwin, Saad Blacknall, Tom Pancoast and DeAndre Thompkins.

In 2017, Stevens shined. He was 17 of 24 for 216 yards, with three TD passes — to Andre Robinson, Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk — and nary an interception or a sack. That was Stevens’ longest extended duty as a PSU quarterback in a game or game-like conditions since he arrived at Penn State in January of 2015.

THE GRANDDADDY OF ’EM ALL

Even with five quarterbacks slingin’ it on Saturday, they’ll be hard-pressed to match the biggest passing shoot-out in Penn State’s Blue-White game history. I was there in the spring of 1980 to cover the trio of Todd Blackledge, Jeff Hosteler and Frank Rocco go head-to-head-to-head.

It was quite trio, too. Blackledge went on to lead Penn State to a 29-3 record and a national title as a starter then was being picked in the first round of the NFL Draft. Hoss started the first few games of the 1980 season, then transferred to West Virginia — where things turned out OK. He married the coach’s daughter and had a fruitful career, including leading the New York Giants to a Super Bowl title.

And Rocco had big cred, too, coming out of Fox Chapel High School. Penn Staters in the know from those days will tell you that Rocco was so good coming out of high school that fellow Pittsburgh passing phenom, Dan Marino of Central Catholic, picked Pitt over PSU at least in part due to Rocco’s presence.

The three fought it on May 3, 1980 — that was back when Penn State’s academic calendar was on terms, so the school year extended a bit longer. The result was a combined passing line of 38 for 81 for 580 yards, with three interceptions and two TD passes.

It was an offensive bonanza (insert Hoss reference here), as the Nittany Lions ran off 138 plays for 981 yards. There were 48 first downs and 57 rushes for 328 yards, led by sophomore Curt Warner’s 28 carries for 124 yards. Why save him, Joe Paterno had to figure; he had all summer to rest up.

On the day, Blackledge was 14 of 31 for 256 yards, with two picks and TD passes of 57 yards to Tom Wise, who later moved to d-back, and 61 to Gregg Garrity Sr., who later sired another PSU WR. Hostetler was 14 of 26 for 223 yards, with a TD run. Rocco, playing with bruised ribs, was 10 for 24 for 101 yards and a memorable pick.

That interception came on the day’s very first play. Roccio threw an interception right into the hands of an opposing cornerback — his brother Danny.

Now that was some fancy passing.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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