On the most significant play of Saturday’s game against Minnesota, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley dropped back to pass, stepped up in the pocket and saw open spaces.
What he did next might have expanded his team’s horizons as well.
His 26-yard scramble in the dying seconds of regulation set up Tyler Davis’ game-tying 40-yard field goal, and the Nittany Lions went on to win, 29-26, on Saquon Barkley’s 25-yard touchdown run in overtime.
Some of the Lions had pointed to Saturday’s game, as well as next week’s home date against Maryland, as critical to their season. Coach James Franklin said beforehand he didn’t necessarily agree, but afterward he was of the opinion that the manner in which his team won was of the utmost importance.
“This is a game that we can really grow from,” he said. “It was definitely something that the players needed. Everybody needed it.”
He compared the victory to one over Connecticut early in his tenure at Vanderbilt. After that, he said, the Commodores carried themselves with more confidence, more belief.
“I think tonight’s one of those nights,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
The Lions were down 13-3 at halftime, and down 23-20 with 54 seconds left in regulation. They allowed two Gophers backs, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, to rush for over 100 yards, and were unable to free Barkley up until it really mattered. He had minus-12 yards on five second-half rushes, and just 63 on 20 attempts in all.
There were also more injuries, notably to cornerback Christian Campbell and middle linebacker Brandon Smith. But safety Marcus Allen made a stunning 22 tackles. And the QB threw for 335 yards and ran for 73, both career highs, and in doing so enlivened the entire team.
Which is not exactly a surprise at this point.
“Trace is just a dog,” Barkley said. “The heart he has, it’s amazing.”
“I’ve always hated losing,” McSorley said. “That’s always a tough thing, just in my gut: Whenever I lose anything, it just sucks, quite frankly.”
So after Emmit Carpenter nailed a 37-yard field goal with 54 seconds to play, the Lions started from their own 25. Two incompletions later, they were looking at third-and-10. On a day when they failed to convert their first eight third downs, and went 4-for-14 overall. And in a season that has seen them struggle in such situations; they began the day next-to-last among the nation’s 128 FBS teams in third-down conversion rate.
No matter, though — McSorley fired to Chris Godwin for a gain of 20.
Or so McSorley heard. He was knocked down by a pass rusher.
“I threw it,” he said, “and then just listened for the crowd.”
Three plays later, there was another third down, this time from the Minnesota 48. McSorley climbed the pocket as he had so effectively all game long, but this time, saw no one open. Nor did he see any defenders; they were playing man-to-man and thus fleeing downfield with their backs to him.
“I just saw green grass,” he said, “and I just took off.”
He scampered out of bounds at the 22 after a gain of 26, enabling Davis to kick his game-tying field goal.
And in OT Barkley did what Barkley does.
McSorley certainly set the table, though.
“For him to come out and lead us down to a game-tying drive and then a game-winning drive is going to be big,” Godwin said. “It’s going to be big for him. It’s going to be big for us as a team.”
Recall that McSorley had been in these down-to-the-line situations twice in the first five games he had seen significant action at Penn State, against Georgia in last year’s TaxSlayer Bowl and against Pitt in Week Two. He threw incomplete into the zone at the end of the first and was intercepted in the end zone near the end of the second, and each time the Lions fell short.
“Definitely in the fact that we lost both of those games,” he said, “I didn’t want to have that happen again.”
There were smaller motivations, like the fact that PSU offensive line coach Matt Limegrover was fired from his job as the Gophers’ offensive coordinator after last season by coach Tracy Claeys.
“We felt like he might have been wronged a little bit at Minnesota,” McSorley said. “We wanted to come and defend him, and win this game for him.”
The Lions were down 13-3 and looking at a third-and-10 from their own 20 early in the third quarter when McSorley climbed the pocket and found backup wide receiver Irvin Charles deep downfield. Charles shrugged off safety Adekunle Ayinde and continued to the end zone to complete the 80-yard scoring play, the first career catch for the redshirt freshman.
McSorley, 19-for-40 in the game, hit Godwin for a 36-yard pickup to set up a game-tying field goal on PSU’s next possession, then found tight end Mike Gesicki for 53 the drive after that. Two plays later the QB waltzed around left end for the TD that gave the Lions a 20-13 lead.
But Minnesota tied it on Shannon Brooks’ 37-yard gallop early in the fourth quarter, then took the lead on Carpenter’s 37-yard field goal with 54 seconds left in regulation.
McSorley wasn’t done, though. Neither were the Lions.