CARSON, Calif. (AP) Trace McSorley was trying to come up with a playful way to celebrate touchdowns when fellow Penn State quarterback Billy Fessler threw him an imaginary baseball during spring practice.
McSorley swung for the fences, creating a celebration that has become a trademark of the No. 5 Nittany Lions' season and foreshadowed the home run pass plays that have taken them to the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth.
McSorley is among the best deep ball quarterbacks in college football, with 12 touchdown passes and just one interception on throws that traveled at least 20 yards through the air. More than one-third of McSorley's 3,360 yards passing have come on such plays.
That prowess was evident In the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin as McSorley completed several explosive passes in critical moments, including the go-ahead touchdown pass to running back Saquan Barkley in the fourth quarter.
It was an effort to open up running lanes for Barkley that prompted Penn State to increase its use of deep throws, though it was always an integral part of first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead's spread system.
''If you load the box, you're going to get hurt in another way,'' Barkley said.
Moorhead, the former Fordham head coach, was linked to the coaching vacancy at UConn that was ultimately filled by the return of Randy Edsall. Penn State players are glad to have Moorhead around, crediting his confidence and upbeat energy for reviving an offense that ranked 100th nationally in points per game last season.
Edsall and Moorhead, who served as the Huskies' offensive coordinator under Edsall for two seasons, traded text messages Wednesday, but his main focus is on trying to attack a Southern California secondary that has not allowed big pass plays during its eight-game winning streak.
The only long touchdowns allowed by the No. 9 Trojans during their resurgence came on a double pass and two plays where All-American cornerback Adoree Jackson lost his footing.
Jackson and sophomore corner Iman Marshall have been especially adept at limiting opponents' top receivers, and Penn State will be without junior Saeed Blacknall in the Rose Bowl because of a suspension for violating team rules. Blacknall had a team-high 155 yards receiving and two touchdown catches against the Badgers, but McSorley has been able to rely on more than one receiver in his first season as a starter.
''We really like our receiver matchups outside,'' McSorley said. ''Definitely having the depth that we do have at receiver and having guys that can play at a couple different receiver positions that are real flexible with what they can do, that helps us out a lot, too.''
McSorley's role in creating explosive pass plays is just as critical, even though he does not have the arm strength usually associated with such big gains. Moorhead is quick to note that accuracy and decision-making are just as important to a successful vertical passing offense.
''Not only is he throwing the deep ball well, he's throwing it to the right person when he's open, so I think that has a lot to do with it, too,'' Moorhead said.
Along with the right skill set, McSorley also has the right celebration to match Penn State's style of play under Moorhead.
''It caught on, a little more than expected,'' McSorley said.