Trace McSorley — with a “Fiesta Bowl Champions” hat perched atop his head — cradled the offensive MVP trophy under his left arm, leaving his right hand free to high-five fans chanting his name. McSorley, after accounting for more than 400 total yards and a pair of touchdowns, was taking a much-deserved victory lap.
McSorley credited everyone — the offensive line, receivers, you name it — after Saturday night’s 35-28 win over Washington. But McSorley and his teammates wouldn’t have been taking a victory lap if weren’t for the quarterback’s heroics play after play.
“I can’t imagine there’s a better quarterback in the country in terms of decision-making and leadership and toughness,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of McSorley, who completed 32 of 41 passes for 342 yards and rushed for 60.
Senior wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, who hauled in both of McSorley’s touchdown passes, said No. 9 doesn’t get enough credit nationally.
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“He’s shown in all these clutch games, no matter how his cards turn up — if he throws a turnover — he’s going to bounce back up and make a play for us,” Hamilton said, grinning by his locker in the underbelly of University of Phoenix Stadium. “You don’t see many bad games from Trace, and there’s a reason for that.”
Senior tight end Mike Gesicki said he “wouldn’t be the player I am without him,” and on Saturday, the same could be said for the entire group of pass-catchers.
Hamilton’s slot fade burned the Huskies’ secondary with relative ease. Gesicki found open pockets over the middle of Washington’s zone. Saquon Barkley’s six catches out of the backfield was a nice relief. And wideout Juwan Johnson was reliable as ever.
But everyone in the Nittany Lions’ exuberant, bustling locker room knew who led Penn State to another Fiesta Bowl triumph.
They understood who had a large hand in securing back-to-back 11-win seasons.
The Nittany Lions banked on McSorley, despite tossing a couple picks, bouncing back and closing out a win.
It’s what he does. The quarterback with a 22-5 collegiate record whipped the ball into tight windows and laid it out for guys like Hamilton to do their thing.
“He performed the best that I’ve ever seen him perform,” said Johnson, a redshirt sophomore. “You need a quarterback like that, to put it all on his shoulders. The way he handles himself is beyond words.”
The Nittany Lions and their fans substituted words for cheers when McSorley dropped a 48-yard dime to Hamilton for the game’s opening score. Washington, which won the opening toss and deferred, likely wishes it hadn’t after seeing McSorley point his right finger in the air in celebration as Hamilton reached the end zone.
Barkley closed out Penn State’s second scoring drive of the first quarter, but it was McSorley’s nine-yard completion on third-and-7 that extended the drive.
He did that quite a bit. McSorley was a perfect 5 for 5 for 112 yards on third downs in the first half. By the end of the night, Penn State had the second-most third-down conversions in Fiesta Bowl history (13), and McSorley’s arm had 10 of them.
“When he plays like that, we always come out with a ‘W,’” Johnson said.
McSorley — when asked about completing 12 of 12 passes for 193 yards on third down — heaped praise on his teammates.
“(The offensive line) had a different sense of urgency to themselves on third downs, and then you’ve got guys like Ham and Saquon, they did a great job separating versus man,” the offensive MVP said. “We knew that was going to be a challenge this week, that they were going to come up and try to press us at the line.”
Thanks to darts on the mark by McSorley, Penn State’s aerial attack rolled — even in its first game without offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.
At midfield, before greeting a horde of supporters lined along the end zone, McSorley basked in it. Between yelling, “Fiesta baby, we champs, let’s go!” to cameras and hugging his wideouts, McSorley tried to get to everybody.
But moments later he was shuffled up to a pop-up stage and stood next to Franklin and Marcus Allen, the game’s defensive MVP.
McSorley held the golden football above his head, high and proud.
It was a surreal moment for McSorley, one he earned.
“He deserves more credit than he’s been given,” Hamilton said of his quarterback. “But the Fiesta Bowl MVP, man, he deserves that wholeheartedly.”