As Trace McSorley accounted for five touchdowns in a roller-coaster 52-49 Rose Bowl loss to Southern California on Jan. 2, backup quarterback Tommy Stevens looked on from the sidelines.
But he was hardly an idle bystander, observing intently and remaining engaged with teammates.
If McSorley went down with an injury, would Stevens be ready to step in and face the Trojans?
“Yes,” the redshirt freshman said without hesitation on Dec. 30 at Rose Bowl media day.
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He didn’t see the field in Pasadena and saw limited reps throughout the season after losing out on the starting quarterback job in fall camp, but Stevens kept a positive attitude during Penn State’s improbable run.
“A lot of success for the team is really all that matters,” Stevens said. “It’s been fun. When I get my chance, I try to make the most of it.”
I said earlier in the season that it didn’t really matter what happened. Whether I won or lost the job, I’d still work hard. I think I held true to that.
Tommy Stevens, Penn State backup quarterback
On the year, Stevens completed 2 of 3 passes for 36 yards. Most of the quarterback’s work got done on the ground, rushing for 198 yards on 21 attempts (9.4 yards per attempt) for two touchdowns.
Stevens’ most memorable moment of the 2016 season was undoubtedly his shocking jet sweep score against Iowa, a play Penn State had in-place for weeks before it was finally called.
The 6-foot-4, 218-pounder lined up in the slot to the right of McSorley, went in motion and secured a handoff.
The student section erupted before Stevens even crossed the line of scrimmage.
The quarterback cut upfield, trucked Hawkeye defensive backs Desmond King and Brandon Snyder, and barreled into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown.
The play capped Penn State’s 41-14 win over Iowa, a reaffirming victory for the Nittany Lions two weeks removed from their 24-21 upset of Ohio State.
For Stevens, it was a few seconds he cherished, and won’t soon forget.
“It was pretty funny,” he recalled. “I started running on the field and Trace started running off the field. I guess he thought I was going in to take over mid-series. I was like, ‘No, no, no stay.’ Then it clicked for him.
“I lined up in the slot, and there’s this mass confusion. Their defensive end just stood up, looked over and started pointing. Everybody was freaking out. They never really got it figured out because it was still madness when I was coming in motion. The rest just kind of happened.”
It wasn’t a play normally drawn up for backup quarterbacks, but in many ways Stevens isn’t a conventional No. 2. His dual-threat ability makes him a seamless fit for Joe Moorhead’s read-pass-option offense, and the size is a mismatch for most defenses.
As the Nittany Lions approach the beginning of spring practice, McSorley is receiving quite a bit of praise. He and running back Saquon Barkley open with the fifth-best odds to win the 2017 Heisman trophy, according to Bovada Sportsbook.
So, where does that leave Stevens? Entering the Rose Bowl, he knew where he stood, and it’s doubtful that’ll change.
Stevens fell short of earning the No. 1 spot once before, but he’ll keep pushing for it.
“It was disappointing not to get the job. That’s what you work for,” Stevens said. “As far as accepting your role, it’s doing what you’ve got to do moving forward. You’ve got to accept your role. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was okay, because I’m never accepting the backseat.
“I said earlier in the season that it didn’t really matter what happened. Whether I won or lost the job, I’d still work hard. I think I held true to that.”