Trace McSorley laid out the dilemma opposing defenses face right now.
If they try to stop Saquon Barkley and the Penn State running game, the Nittany Lions have weapons in their prolific passing game. If they try to take away McSorley’s options through the air, they risk letting one of the nation’s best running backs run wild.
“It’s almost like pick your poison,” McSorley said. “What do you want to try to stop?”
Michigan State chose to try to stop Barkley and the running game, so McSorley and his receiving corps burned the Spartans in the No. 7 Nittany Lions’ 45-12 win Saturday at Beaver Stadium. The Penn State quarterback completed 17 of 23 passes for 376 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions as his team captured the Big Ten East title to clinch a spot in the Big Ten championship game against No. 6 Wisconsin in Indianapolis next week.
McSorley broke Penn State’s single-season record for total offense set by Matt McGloin in 2012 as the Nittany Lions (10-2, 8-1) scored more than 40 points for the fourth time during their eight-game winning streak.
McSorley, who came into the game ranked second in the country in passing yards per completion (15.57), averaged 22.12 yards per completion Saturday — performance highlighted by touchdown passes of 40, 45 and 59 yards.
Chris Godwin led Penn State’s receivers with five catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns, and tight end Mike Gesicki had two catches for 64 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s been fun to watch those guys make plays and it’s been fun to watch Trace grow up in front of our eyes,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
The big-play ability in the passing game has been part of a transformation for the Penn State offense and helped kickstart the Nittany Lions’ winning streak.
McSorley recalled Irvin Charles’ 80-yard touchdown catch in the team’s overtime win over Minnesota as he talked about that game as one of the turning points in the season.
If Penn State hadn’t gotten its offense going that day, McSorley said he’s not sure how that game and the rest of the season plays out.
Now, the Nittany Lions are headed to the Big Ten title game.
They added to their big-play tally to clinch their trip to Indianapolis.
With Michigan State overloading the box to stop the running game — Barkley rushed for nine yards on nine carries and Penn State had 14 yards rushing on 17 carries in the first half — the Nittany Lions knew they had to get their passing game going.
It didn’t take long.
On Penn State’s first drive of the second half, McSorley gave a pump fake and Godwin beat Michigan State safety Montae Nicholson down the left sideline.
McSorley lofted the pass toward the end zone for his wide receiver.
“The ball can seem like it’s taking forever to come down,” Godwin said. “Like on my first touchdown, it felt like the ball was in the air for about three days. I saw the defender running up behind me, I was just praying that the ball came down before he got there.”
Godwin hauled it in for a 34-yard touchdown to give the Nittany Lions a 17-12 lead with 11:02 left in the third quarter.
On Penn State’s next drive, Gesicki made a highlight-reel touchdown grab.
McSorley threw the ball on the run for his 6-foot-6 tight end.
Gesicki went up and brought it down over Michigan State cornerback Darian Hicks and Nicholson for a 45-yard touchdown. Godwin ran by the Spartans secondary for a 59-yard touchdown to push the lead to 31-12 late in the third quarter.
“We came out and absolutely just tore ‘em apart in the passing game whether it was Chris or Saeed (Blacknall) or DaeSean (Hamilton), myself,” Gesicki said. “It didn’t matter who it was. There was a bunch of plays out there we made.”
Godwin said he thinks Penn State has the best group of receivers in the Big Ten.
And offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead likes to utilize his deep threats.
“Coach Moorhead’s going to continue to take shots,” McSorley said. “That’s what he does. He’s not going to back away and he trusts the guys on the field, trusts the line. The line did an amazing job protecting today.”
With time to throw, McSorley put together another memorable day leading Penn State’s offense.
“I love it,” McSorley said. “I love giving our guys on the outside chances to go be playmakers.”