Trace McSorley, left ankle wrapped in tape and spirit beaten but not broken, endured jarring hit after jarring hit.
At one point, Penn State coach James Franklin motioned to McSorley to take a knee.
But the redshirt sophomore quarterback, holding his midsection after another devastating blow, waved Franklin off — he just made one of the game’s biggest plays, and the Nittany Lions were driving.
No shot was McSorley coming out of the game.
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It was that mentality coupled with an effectiveness chucking the ball deep, not to mention timely defensive stops, that pushed Penn State over the top. The No. 10 Nittany Lions, tied at halftime and down by 10 in third quarter, rallied yet again to defeat Indiana 45-31 on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
The victory marked the third time this season Penn State overcame a second-half deficit of 10 points or more to still win, and the Nittany Lions (8-2, 6-1) are now riding a six-game unbeaten streak in the Big Ten, the first time the Nittany Lions have done that in the same season since 1994.
That team went to the Rose Bowl — and with arguably Penn State’s toughest remaining test entering Saturday now in the rear view mirror, the thoughts of a 10-2 regular season and Pasadena are very much alive.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” an exhausted Franklin said. “I would describe it as gutsy, resilient, and we battled through a bunch of different things.”
However, he did admit the nature of the afternoon got to him.
“I aged probably five or six years,” the coach noted. “I’m already an old 44-year-old as it is.”
It was a game Franklin, his players and the vocal minority in the stands sweated out, especially considering how uneasy the Nittany Lions looked early on.
Thanks to four turnovers by the Hoosiers, Penn State was gifted opportunity after opportunity in the first half to establish itself as the dominant side.
But its offense lacked rhythm, and confidence wavered.
At halftime, the Nittany Lions had only 157 yards of offense. Penn State drove down the field on Indiana for an game-opening touchdown drive, capped by a 10-yard McSorley scamper, but from that point forward none of the flow from the Nittany Lions’ beatdown of Iowa carried over. Indiana was stacking the box, stopping Saquon Barkley, and succeeding while playing man-to-man coverage all the way.
“Huge credit to Tom Allen,” Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson said of his defensive coordinator. “(The front-seven) play with fire, they play with passion, they fight and scratch. It’s relentless in the way they play.”
McSorley’s touchdown run and a 6-yard hookup between the quarterback and Chris Godwin immediately following a muffed punt was all Penn State could produce as the game went to halftime tied 14-14.
But we’ve seen this story before. Just two weekends ago the Nittany Lions, fresh off an upset of then-No. 2 Ohio State, were tied 17-17 with Purdue at halftime in West Lafayette only to drop 45 second-half points on the Boilermakers en route to a 62-24 win.
That feeling didn’t exist as the third quarter began, though. Indiana connected on a 47-yard field goal on its opening drive, McSorley threw his second interception of the day, and then the Hoosiers dusted the Penn State defense for a touchdown.
The Nittany Lions trailed 24-14 with 3:13 to go in the third quarter, and they were in trouble.
That’s precisely when McSorley, with his ankle taped up from a first-half injury, took over.
On Penn State’s ensuing drive, after the Hoosiers trapped Barkley on first down for one of many negative gains of the afternoon, McSorley dropped back to throw. Indiana linebacker Marcus Oliver, slightly delaying his blitz, came shooting up the gut and leveled McSorley just after the signal-caller flicked his pass downfield.
McSorley connected with Saeed Blacknall for 43 yards, but the quarterback didn’t see his wideout catch it. He was sprawled out on the Memorial Stadium turf, listening for a crowd reaction.
“He was squirming on the ground for a little bit, then picked himself back up,” tight end Mike Gesicki recalled. “The ref asked if he wanted to come out.”
How did McSorley, hobbling already and now dealing with a monster hit to the midsection, respond?
“Hell no,” Gesicki remembers his teammate saying.
“He’s a warrior,” the tight end said, shaking his head, “always has been, always will be.”
McSorley said he got the wind knocked out of him and just needed a few seconds to get himself straightened out.
But when he waved off Franklin, it’s not as if adrenaline took over. He still felt the hit.
“I knew I took a shot there,” McSorley said with a laugh.
He continued on, connecting with Godwin for a 21-yard touchdown pass three plays later.
Penn State slashed Indiana’s lead to 24-21, and momentum shifted. The Nittany Lion defense forced a three-and-out on the subsequent series, and Penn State struck for another touchdown — a 54-yard flea-flicker from McSorley to DaeSean Hamilton set up one of Barkley’s two short touchdown runs.
Indiana responded with a touchdown of its own, but again, McSorley’s arm got it done. A 13-yard pass to Gesicki followed shortly by a 26-yarder to Godwin put the Nittany Lions deep in Hoosier territory, where Barkley barreled home Penn State’s go-ahead score with 3:58 left in regulation.
Penn State’s defense, like it had so many times before, held on fourth down when Indiana went for it on 4th-and-3 from its own 22-yard line.
And after Tyler Davis’ 39-yard field goal gave Penn State a 38-31 lead with 1:07 to go, the defense ramped up the pressure. As the clock ticked under 45 seconds, Hoosier quarterback Richard Lagow was sacked and stripped by Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell. Defensive end Torrence Brown scooped the ball up and scooted into the end zone for 9-yard fumble recovery touchdown.
With the play, Indiana’s upset bid, while it looked so promising in the third quarter, was vanquished.
McSorley and his teammates could breathe easy. It was the cap to a win — an ugly win, some Penn State players noted, but a win nonetheless.
“We just find a way to win, regardless of who we play,” Penn State safety Marcus Allen said. “We dig deep, and don’t give up.”
That’s especially true for Penn State’s field general.
McSorley, who completed 16 of 30 passes for 332 yards, including eight passes of 20 yards or more that totaled 268 yards, was dropped to the turf play after play behind a patchwork offensive line.
But his ability to hit the deep ball while taking hits impressed throughout the afternoon and guided the Nittany Lions to a win that moves them that much closer to a New Year’s Six bowl game.
“He’s a tough sucker,” Franklin said of his quarterback. “He is tough, he is smart, he is resilient.
“The guys believe in him. They really do.”