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How Trace McSorley’s Citrus Bowl return embodied his Penn State legacy

Trace McSorley hobbled down the dimly lit, cement corridors of Camping World Stadium, slowed by a walking boot. Inching toward the exit, where his parents, Andrea and Rick, and sister, Micaela, waited for him, QB 1 stopped to embrace his extended family: James Franklin’s wife, Fumi, and the coach’s daughters, Addy and Shola. McSorley smiled, even after a loss that cut deep.

He didn’t cry coming off the field. His body didn’t shake when he knelt in the end zone and prayed. His voice didn’t quiver when reflecting on his storied collegiate career. But McSorley was hurting Tuesday evening, physically and emotionally.

After fighting through a broken foot and rattling off 17 unanswered second-half points, the fifth-year senior’s heart sunk as the clock hit zero. As the Florida sun set, so, too, did his time as a Nittany Lion.

“Trace is special,” Franklin said after Penn State’s 27-24 loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl. “You look out on the field and you focus on his arm and his legs. But it’s his heart and his mind that really makes him special.”

In Orlando, it was all of the above. McSorley accounted for 321 total yards and three touchdowns in his farewell. Had the Nittany Lion defense prevented Kentucky from picking up two late-game first downs, Penn State’s most prolific passer of all-time would have likely hoisted his third MVP postseason trophy.

But it wasn’t meant to be. The Nittany Lions couldn’t climb out of a hole they dug themselves. They couldn’t overcome a horrid start on offense, one punctuated by an 0-for 9-mark on third down. They couldn’t survive the endless special teams errors. Not even with McSorley’s triumphant return from injury, one that was both baffling and remarkable.

The captain suffered what Penn State reported to be a broken foot in the first half. McSorley said he’s not sure when it happened or how. But after redshirt freshman Sean Clifford filled in for a third-quarter series, a three-and-out that ended in a sack, Penn State’s doctors cleared McSorley to resume playing. It was up to him if he could withstand the pain and discomfort.

As if McSorley wouldn’t re-enter given the choice.

“They would have had to take my pads off,” the quarterback said. “I didn’t want my career to end like that. I wanted to be out there with my teammates. I knew that was going to be the last time I was going to be able to suit up with those guys. We’ve gone through too much with that group of men, from winter workouts, spring ball, summer conditioning. I went through too much with those guys.”

Like it did in Penn State’s October win over Iowa, McSorley’s return from injury galvanized a sleepy Penn State squad.

After completing just 42.9 percent of his passes in the first three quarters, McSorley connected on 8 of 12 attempts for 131 yards and a touchdown in the fourth. He also rushed for three first downs, found the end zone with his feet and, most impressively, avoided sack attempts by national defensive player of the year Josh Allen.

When McSorley found freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth for an 18-yard score, cutting Kentucky’s lead to 27-21 with nine minutes to go, it felt like Tuesday night might end with the Nittany Lions carrying the quarterback off the field in celebration. Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, when the 27-24 score went final, the quarterback hugged Franklin, congratulated Allen and gingerly made his way toward the tunnel.

Minutes later, rap music blared from Kentucky’s locker room. In Penn State’s, it was McSorley’s voice that carried.

“I made sure that everyone in that locker room knew I loved them and I appreciate them,” he said. “For the rest of my life and for the rest of their lives, we’re going to be bonded together as teammates. ... Those guys are my brothers.”

The Nittany Lions feel the same about their leader, the face of their program.

Defensive end Shareef Miller said he believes McSorley is the best quarterback to ever play at Penn State. Redshirt junior safety Garrett Taylor called him “the ultimate competitor.” Tight end Nick Bowers said McSorley “brings everyone together.”

“It feels like he’s been here for so long, but now he’s finally gone,” Bowers said wide-eyed. “It’s surreal. ... It’s sad.”

Now, McSorley embarks on a new journey: The NFL. Penn State’s all-time leader in wins, passing yards, passing touchdowns and touchdowns responsible for has a future in professional football; McSorley is confident in that. Where he’ll get selected in the 2019 NFL draft, who knows?

But when scouts, coaches and executives watch his tape — when they scour his film from the Citrus Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Rose Bowl, Big Ten championship and everything in between — they’ll see a kid who didn’t quit. Someone who broke his foot and kept going. Someone who will be beloved in Happy Valley forever with reason.

McSorley’s career at Penn State is over. His journey complete. But even in defeat, No. 9’s curtain call was fitting.

“Today was a really good example of the type of leader that he is, the type of player that he is, the type of person he is,” Franklin said. “Trace will be remembered for a long time.”

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