Despite trying to take the same approach to each and every game, Trace McSorley is human. He understands that Saturday night — his final White Out — has the chance to be special.
When No. 9 Penn State welcomes No. 4 Ohio State, in the first battle between top-10 teams at Beaver Stadium in 19 years, the winner has an inside track to the College Football Playoff. Two years ago, McSorley and the Nittany Lions were snubbed of a spot in the national semifinals. Last season, Penn State was six points away from an undefeated campaign and an unquestioned invite to the final four.
Now, with the stakes as high as can be, all eyes will be on the kid James Franklin has referred to for years as the program’s “steady Eddie.” McSorley lives for nights like Saturday, and he’s focused on seizing the big stage like he has so many times before.
“You’re definitely aware of the magnitude when you step foot into a game like this,” McSorley said Wednesday night on the Lasch practice field, Beaver Stadium looming over his right shoulder. “You take five or 10 seconds, enjoy the moment, realize where you’re at. ... Then you lock in, and you play the game like you always have.”
And no one expects anything less from the fifth-year senior with a 16-0 home record.
“There’s a lot of confidence when that guy goes on the field,” Franklin said. “And not just from our offense. He impacts our whole team.”
Added Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer: “I’ve watched this guy play for three years now, and his competitive spirit, that’s what you need in great players. And that’s what he is.”
Saturday will be McSorley’s fifth White Out game with the Nittany Lions, his third as a starter. His first under center, of course, was Penn State’s program-shifting upset of the Buckeyes in 2016.
At the time, McSorley had not yet fully grown into his role as a starter. He struggled in Penn State’s 49-10 loss at Michigan and managed only 152 yards on 10-of-19 passing against Maryland a week before the Buckeyes visited. But the three-time high school state champion endeared himself to Nittany Lion fans everywhere on Oct. 22, 2016. His touchdown pass to Chris Godwin at the end of the second quarter gave Beaver Stadium patrons hope, and his fourth-quarter dive for the pylon reignited a drowsy crowd.
While many point to the Minnesota comeback, Penn State’s upset of Ohio State sparked the Nittany Lions’ 2016 run to a conference crown — and it started the folk hero status that now surrounds McSorley.
“When things aren’t going your way, and then you make plays, it builds belief in yourself, in your teammates,” ABC play-by-play broadcaster Chris Fowler told the CDT. “Even though that confidence was there before, you need to have it happen in a big moment to really have it blossom.”
Fowler, who called the 2016 upset with Kirk Herbstreit, became enamored with McSorley’s presence two years ago. He watched from afar as the quarterback guided Penn State to a comeback win over Wisconsin in the title game and commentated an electric Rose Bowl, a five-touchdown performance for the gutty gunslinger.
“He’s able to keep his head and keep his mechanics even while operating in chaotic situations,” Fowler said. “Even when he’s creating and he’s extending plays and making throws, he’s under control.”
That demeanor is why Franklin calls McSorley his “steady Eddie.” It’s why the Nittany Lions have a 26-5 record in games he’s started. It’s why, entering a night like Saturday, McSorley’s teammates possess unwavering confidence in his ability to lead and, more importantly, win.
Penn State wide receiver Juwan Johnson called McSorley’s will to win “infectious.” Running back Miles Sanders said, “We go as he goes.” And McSorley wants to go far.
In an April conversation in the Lasch Building, then eagerly awaiting the 2018 campaign, the quarterback said that as the face of the program, “There’s something to be said for not holding anything back.”
With the college football world watching, McSorley has his chance to do that Saturday night.