Through all the gutty performances, whether it was a win — think 38-31 over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game — or in defeat at Pittsburgh and Michigan, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley has never wavered.
He’s a player who goes for it and takes his shot; it’s a big reason why the Nittany Lions made it to the Rose Bowl in the first place.
But in “The Granddaddy of Them All” it was that same to-hell-with-it, brazen mentality that did McSorley and the Nittany Lions in on Monday night.
Holding two timeouts in-hand and facing a third down with 38 seconds to go, the Nittany Lions quarterback went for it against the Trojans, chucking it downfield on the right sideline toward Chris Godwin. It was picked off by Leon McQuay at the USC 33-yard line and was returned to Penn State’s 35.
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Two plays later, Trojans placekicker Matt Boermeester drilled a 46-yard field goal to crush the Nittany Lions, securing a bonkers 52-49 win.
McSorley, who did account for five touchdowns on the evening, was disappointed in himself with the late-game mistake.
“On the pre-snap read I saw the coverage and thought I could fit it in to our playmaker,” McSorley told reporters after the game. “I took too big of a chance in that situation. I kind of went off the reservation with what our read was there.”
So what was the read on that play?
Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said they had “takeoff routes” called on the left and right side.
McSorley said he needed to look at the other part of the field to make a comprehensive decision. Instead, he keyed in on Godwin from the start, which is understandable given the junior wideout’s stellar showing (nine catches, 187 yards, two touchdowns).
“He’d been making plays for us all game. He was the guy in mind,” McSorley said. “We had a deep shot. Saw him get behind the corner, and I tried to throw it and let him go make a play. Can’t do that. Gotta stay with the read, not predetermine where I’m going because of how a guy has been playing. Let the coverage determine where the ball goes.”
McQuay, a senior safety, had a chance to pick off McSorley the play before. McSorley tossed it deep to 6-foot-6 tight end Mike Gesicki, who was open but the ball floated and McQuay sprinted in front of the target.
McQuay got his hands on it and dropped the interception.
He didn’t miss the second time around.
“It’s a play that we’ve run a bunch of times with a lot of success,” Moorhead said. “We felt Chris could get open. I guess (McSorley) just didn’t see the safety come off the hash at the end. The kid made a great play.”
When asked what he’d do differently if he could do it over again, McSorley said he’d stay with the read and not force it to Godwin.
It didn’t turn out in Penn State’s favor, but the game will go down as one of the greatest in Rose Bowl history, and perhaps bowl game history.
That didn’t console McSorley much. The competitor puts the blame on himself.
“(USC) did everything they needed to do to win the game, create turnovers and score points,” the quarterback said. “We didn’t. A lot of that falls on me. Throwing three interceptions isn’t going to win you games. You’re not going to win a game like that. That’s all on me.”