With a little more than four minutes remaining in regulation, Penn State was rolling against Michigan State, holding a firm 26-point lead.
Time for backup quarterback Tommy Stevens to come in for mop-up duty, right?
Trace McSorley trotted out to the field, flanked by his starting offensive line. First play, McSorley heaved it deep for a 43-yard connection to wideout Juwan Johnson. A few moments later, the quarterback linked up with running back Andre Robinson for a 40-yard touchdown pass.
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It was somewhat surprising to see — until you remember how last year went down. Michigan State, ranked No. 5 nationally, had senior offensive lineman Jack Allen run in the final touchdown in a 55-16 rout at Spartan Stadium in 2015’s regular-season finale.
It was seen by many as rubbing salt in the wound, and even though Penn State coach James Franklin denied that the Nittany Lions weren’t trying to return the favor with Robinson’s late score in Saturday’s 45-12 demolition, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio thought otherwise.
“You know what they say about payback,” Dantonio said. “It was 55-16 last year. I guess they felt it.”
Echoing his head coach, McSorley also said that the play wasn’t an attempt to run up the score in any way, shape or form; the quarterback insisted that they would’ve ran the same play in the first quarter if Michigan State showed a similar blitz.
But in the crowd’s reaction and Dantonio’s words, one could draw different conclusion.
In a statement win, the Nittany Lions made a statement play.
Now, they’re off to Indianapolis.
▪ McSorley spread the ball around well, hitting eight different targets on Saturday night. Of course, his four touchdowns went to three players: Chris Godwin caught the 34 and 59-yarders, Mike Gesicki hauled in a 45-yard grab and Robinson had the 40-yard clincher.
But what was perhaps most impressive by McSorley was the one touchdown drive that didn’t end in a throwing score.
Down 9-3 as the second quarter trickled down, McSorley helped jump-start Penn State’s offense. On a 10-play, 78-yard series that ended with a one-yard Saquon Barkley touchdown leap, McSorley connected with DeAndre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall and DaeSean Hamilton for first-down throws of 25, 16 and 16 yards, respectively.
McSorley’s trust in his guys put the Nittany Lions in a positive rhythm, and set them on their way to a blowout win.
▪ Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week, and he made a good case for it against Sparty. The senior had 18 tackles, doubling the second-leading tackler for Penn State (Manny Bowen, 9).
Bell has shown the ability to step up this season; he made 18 stops, as well, in Penn State’s upset of Ohio State on Oct. 22.
Penn State is a young team and will return a lot of talent in 2017, but it’s going to miss Bell next season.
▪ One penalty. The entire game. And it happened in the fourth quarter.
The Nittany Lions didn’t commit any unnecessary penalties against Michigan State, completing a recent effort to clean up their play.
Penn State was sloppy at Purdue (11 penalties for 91 yards) and at home against Iowa (9 for 86), but it looks like that issue has been taken care of.
Penn State had five penalties at Indiana, three last week at Rutgers, and then just a pass interference on John Reid a couple nights ago.
▪ While Franklin is “confident” that Barkley will be good-to-go for the Big Ten Championship game, seeing the star sophomore leave a game early due to injury for the second time in as many weeks was unsettling.
What’s just as concerning is that Barkley never got going against Michigan State, as the Spartans keyed in on the run just like Indiana and Rutgers.
The star wowed on his acrobatic touchdown jump, but the past three weeks he’s totaled 164 rushing yards and is averaging 2.6 yards per carry.
Yes, Barkley can pop off at any time.
It just might be difficult against Wisconsin’s run defense (No. 3 nationally, 100.8 rushing yards per contest).
▪ Michigan State’s first-half drives went 12, 11, 13 and 14 plays, respectively, averaging 64 yards per series.
All four drives ended in field goals, so the Nittany Lions lucked out a bit. But if Michigan State gets into the end zone on one or two of those drives, it could’ve been a totally different game.
Penn State’s tendency to turn it on in the second half has been a blessing so far, but on the flip side, its almost-expected first-half sluggishness could catch up with them against Wisconsin.