Trace McSorley walked off the Ryan Field grass and onto a concrete ramp, heading to the locker room after an ESPN postgame interview to meet up with teammates. But first, he was greeted by a raucous welcome.
Hundreds of Penn State fans stuck around, crowding the stands near the tunnel and cheering his arrival. Kids in Penn State jerseys and tie-dye Nittany Lion shirts held out a hand, and McSorley gave every single one a high-five. The quarterback even took off his white skull cap and handed it to a young boy, whose smile beamed as he ran up the metal bleachers to show his parents.
McSorley was the star Saturday.
His overall numbers — 245 passing yards and one touchdown pass — may not reflect it, but the 195-pound quarterback put Penn State’s offense on his shoulders and carried it to a 31-7 win over Northwestern on Saturday. The Wildcats shut down Saquon Barkley and forced No. 9 to beat them. He did, and unknowingly made history in the process with 15 consecutive completions.
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“I had no idea,” the quarterback said on the Ryan Field concourse.
“It’s a school record,” a reporter said. “You passed (Kerry) Collins.”
“Oh really?” McSorley said with a smile. “Sweet.”
The 15 straight connections overtook Kerry Collins’ 14 in a row against Minnesota in 1994. It’s not a profound school record, not one people really look for or remember. Heck, McSorley himself didn’t know it was a thing.
But the run was important — not because it set a new program standard, but because it helped the Nittany Lions oust the Wildcats. The 15 completions were over a four-series span. In that time period, Penn State scored 17 points, grabbing a commanding lead.
McSorley was counted on after Northwestern sold out on stopping Barkley. It was obvious from the get-go, stacking the box and blitzing an extra linebacker or two. But McSorley and the Nittany Lions were fully expecting that. They knew Northwestern — like every other team this season — would put the onus on McSorley to key the offense. In practice all week, Penn State’s scout-team defense gave Penn State’s signal-caller and offensive counterparts a taste of what they’d see: soft coverage on the outside and heavy pressure off the edge.
Northwestern’s strategy didn’t work.
When the Wildcats were in zone, guys like Saeed Blacknall and Juwan Johnson made a living on 10-yard out patterns. When they were in one-on-one man coverage, Penn State’s wideouts had little trouble gaining separation.
“From my perspective, it just felt like practice,” Blacknall said, before complimenting McSorley’s form. “You’re just dinking and dunking, hitting us all on our spots — from the outside guys to the tight ends. It’s something we’re all familiar with.”
The wideouts are especially familiar with that zone McSorley gets in. “His eyes are laser-focused. He’s precise,” Blacknall added.
As mentioned before, McSorley’s had more number-crazy days than Saturday. Look no further than last week against Indiana, the Big Ten title game or 2016’s blowout win over Michigan State. In fact, the quarterback has had 10 better games in terms of passing yards over the course of his 21-game career.
But that zone he was in — those 15 completions and what it meant — can’t be overstated.
His coach, a former college quarterback, has never experienced something like it first-hand.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever thrown 15 straight completions even in my backyard with a buddy,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “I’m the last person to ask about knowing what that feels like.”