Trace McSorley’s head refused to drop, and his shoulders never shrugged. He refrained from putting out negative body language Saturday afternoon — even if it would have been warranted.
Penn State beat Kent State to a pulp, 63-10. In retrospect, it’s easy to say there would be no result outside of a rout. But several times on Saturday afternoon — before the bow was tied on a blowout — things went south for Penn State’s offense. And it was McSorley who brought the Nittany Lions back to their feet.
On the stat sheet, QB 1 hung 283 total yards and five touchdowns on the hapless Golden Flashes. But there was more to McSorley’s performance. He handled himself like a fifth-year senior with a sterling 17-0 home record. He possessed the poise of a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.
“If you’re a young quarterback out there, watch Trace McSorley,” a raspy-voiced James Franklin said at the Beaver Stadium media room dais. “The guy’s been winning since he was in diapers. That’s all he does is win. And it’s because of all those things that he doesn’t get enough credit for. It’s how he is as a teammate. It’s how he supports the guys. It’s how he is when they make mistakes.
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“The guy is a model in terms of how you conduct yourself at the most critical position in all of sports.”
On three separate occasions, unnecessary penalties negated touchdown passes by McSorley. And four times, the quarterback’s intended target had the ball hit their hands and allowed it to fall to the grass — or worse, to a Kent State player.
“But in the moment, it’s just moving on to the next play,” McSorley said. “All you can worry about is the next play.” That was the quarterback’s calling card on Saturday.
On the second snap of the game, McSorley connected with KJ Hamler for a 56-yard touchdown strike without a Kent State defensive back nearby. It was called back on a hold by center Michal Menet. Five plays later, the quarterback found DeAndre Thompkins for a 40-yard score.
On Penn State’s second drive, Brandon Polk dropped an easy first down. A minute later, McSorley barreled into the end zone for a 1-yard run. On the next series, tight end Jon Holland let a ball go through his grasp for an incomplete pass. Five plays later — you guessed it — McSorley added a second rushing touchdown to his tally.
When Juwan Johnson didn’t turn his head on a routine out route at the end of the first half, a pass bounced off his startled body. McSorley shook it off, capping the quick march with a 13-yard rushing score.
The only time McSorley didn’t score on a drive that featured a drop? He was making a touchdown-saving tackle.
Late in the second quarter, a third-down pass awkwardly bobbled out of Miles Sanders’ possession and into the arms of Kent State defensive back Elvis Hines, who made a mad dash for the end zone. If Hines scores, it’s a sloppy 21-14 game with halftime looming. Instead, McSorley — a former high school safety — chased Hines down and dragged him to the ground. Penn State’s defense held the Golden Flashes to a field goal.
After his first interception of the season — a pick that wasn’t his fault — McSorley saved the Nittany Lions four points.
“That’s just leadership from the big dog,” Sanders said. “He’s the captain of the team. You can’t coach effort.”
Running back Mark Allen, who was in McSorley’s 2014 recruiting class, put it this way.
“Say you’re in a war,” Allen started. “If your general isn’t poised, the entire crew isn’t. I consider Trace the general of the team. And the fact that he was so poised in situations like that (with penalties and drops), it basically rubbed off on us. We kept going, following Trace.”
Really, that’s how the Nittany Lions have operated for 30 games now. Saquon Barkley drew the headlines, and Joe Moorhead drew up the plays, but Penn State has gone as far as McSorley has taken it.
It was McSorley who threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns and led the Nittany Lions to their first Big Ten title since 1994. It was McSorley whose 402 yards rightfully earned him MVP honors in Penn State’s Fiesta Bowl win over Washington. And on Saturday, it was McSorley’s leadership that kept the Nittany Lions’ offense humming — and perhaps more importantly, kept his teammates’ heads held high.
Sitting at 3-0 with the Big Ten slate ahead — and Ohio State on the horizon — Saturday’s rebound performance is what Penn State’s passing attack needed. Drops and penalties plagued Penn State against Appalachian State and Pitt, and those issues reared their ugly heads yet again.
But McSorley pushed forward. It’s what Penn State’s players, fans and coaches have come to expect.
“He has the head for (the Heisman),” offensive tackle Ryan Bates said. “He has the leadership for it.”
Added Franklin: “I love the guy. I’ve got a man crush on him. Always have, and I will for a long time.”