PSU overcomes sluggish start
UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State got shellshocked by a fluky play to start the game and spent most of the first half sleepwalking through Saturday’s contest against lowly Rutgers.
Then the team’s most reliable offensive player the second half of the season got things going.
And no, it wasn’t Saquon Barkley.
It was the small-ish quarterback who came to Penn State unheralded but will leave as the program’s career record holder in numerous categories, including total touchdowns.
Trace McSorley had an efficient day through the air and on the ground to lead the No. 16 Nittany Lions to a 35-6 win over Rutgers before 107,531 fans at Beaver Stadium.
While Barkley struggled again running the ball and was held to 35 yards, McSorley threw for two scores and ran for another as PSU bounced back from a two-game losing streak.
“You can just tell by watching him play, watching how he carries himself and watching how he prepares and practices every day, obviously he has a chip on his shoulder, as he should,” tight end Mike Gesicki said of McSorley. “He’s a great quarterback, not only in the Big Ten, but across the country.”
Penn State (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) was never really in jeopardy against a Rutgers team with virtually no passing attack that came in as a 31-point underdog. However, the Scarlet Knights led 6-0 early in the second quarter, thanks in large part to a bizarre start to the game.
Rutgers’ opening kickoff was short, and Barkley, the deep man, didn’t come up and aggressively get the ball. So it just bounced around in no-man’s land for a couple of seconds, and the Scarlet Knights came up with it in a scrum at the Lions’ 21, then kicked a field goal.
From then on, through the first quarter, it looked like the Penn State players on both sides of the ball were victims of some sort of hangover following last week’s last-second 27-24 loss at Michigan State.
“I don’t think I would say a hangover,” McSorley said before later adding, “We kind of got a little shellshocked” about the opening sequence.
The Lions’ offense did nothing on its first two possessions, and Rutgers (4-6, 3-4) marched down the field on an 8-minute drive that produced another field goal.
McSorley gathered some of the offensive leaders on the sideline for a message.
“Hey, we’re a little shellshocked, let’s get past that, let’s start playing ball, let’s play confident,” he told them.
The Lions began doing that on their third offensive series, ignited by a 19-yard pass from McSorley to Gesicki on the first play. McSorley hit DaeSean Hamilton for 25 yards two plays later to the Rutgers 20 and took it into the end zone himself from there on the next play with 9:32 left in the half.
So, even though the Scarlet Knights had outplayed PSU for the first 20 minutes, the Lions had the lead. They went on to score 35 unanswered points — 21 in the second half after a 14-6 lead at intermission — looking sharper on offense and getting strong defensive play to stifle Rutgers’ weak offense.
“Defensively, I don’t think we allowed a first down from early in the second quarter until late in the fourth quarter,” PSU coach James Franklin said.
Penn State held Rutgers to 200 yards of offense and 10 first downs. The Scarlet Knights had a meager 43 yards passing from Giovanni Rescigno, who completed just 7-of-20.
“I felt like we got back clicking, everybody just running to the ball with relentless pressure,” safety Marcus Allen said of the defense.
McSorley finished the day 16-of-21 for 214 yards and two TDs. He also ran 13 times for 44 yards, while Barkley was held to 35 yards on 14 carries.
Barkley was part of one of the game’s highlights early in the third quarter. On third-and-9 from the Rutgers 15, McSorley hit Hamilton in the right flat, and the receiver lateraled to Barkley, who took it down to the 1, hurdling a defender in the process.
“We turned it into a big play,” Hamilton said. “We had that in our back pocket for a few weeks.”
Other than that play, though, Barkley was primarily a decoy in the offense, while McSorley was the catalyst. The quarterback had 381 yards passing last week at Michigan State, but he also threw three interceptions.
“That hurt, for sure,” he said of the turnovers. “That game, it’s a lot like the USC game (in the Rose Bowl last season), honestly. A lot of that falls on my shoulders, so I kind of took that last game real personally.”
Franklin said the offense is at its best “when Trace factors into our running game and keeps people honest and keeps people on their toes.”
McSorley wound up setting a prestigious school record with his 20-yard TD run in the second quarter. That was the 66th touchdown he’s accounted for, breaking the previous career mark held by Daryll Clark.
McSorley has thrown at least one TD pass in 25 consecutive games, and he’s had 14 games with at least one passing and one rushing TD, including seven this season.
Not bad for an undersized player whose only Division I scholarship offer to play quarterback came from Penn State.
Being overlooked, McSorley admitted, gave him a chip on his shoulder.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “It’s something that still motivates me to this day.”
McSorley hasn’t gotten the Heisman hype that Barkley has received, which is one of the bizarre things about college football. Even though Barkley is widely considered the better football player and certainly the better pro prospect, it’s McSorley who has to make big plays week after week to keep the offense moving as defenses focus on shutting down Barkley.
McSorley still has one more season left to add on to all of his school records, and when all is said and done he will own a ton of them.
“As a high school kid, when you come to a place like this, you come here to compete, and yeah, you dream of having that success, and that’s kind of the vision you have,” McSorley said. “No one has that vision of, I’m going to come here and be mediocre.
“You come here as a competitor to be great and hopefully be able to win games and have those big numbers. All that stuff is great, definitely something when I’m older be able to look back on and kind of enjoy.”
PSU-Rutgers scoring summary
Rutgers 3, Penn State 0: Rutgers kicked off short to start the game, and the ball landed between several PSU players with no one jumping on it. The Scarlet Knights recovered at the Lions’ 21. The PSU defense held, and Andrew Harte kicked a 33-yard field goal with 12:48 left in the first.
Rutgers 6, Penn State 0: The Scarlet Knights put together an impressive drive almost entirely on the ground and moved down to the PSU 10. They stalled at the 8, though, and Harte kicked a 25-yard field goal with 11:17 left in the half.
Penn State 7, Rutgers 6: PSU scored quickly, going 65 yards in just four plays, including a 19-yard pass from Trace McSorley to Mike Gesicki and a 25-yard throw to DaeSean Hamilton. McSorley scored from 20 yards out with 9:32 left in the half.
Penn State 14, Rutgers 6: McSorley hit Juwan Johnson for 17 yards to convert a third down, and PSU got the help of a pass interference call on Rutgers to get to the 22. McSorley hit Hamilton over the middle on the next play for a 22-yard score with 1:13 to go in the half.
Penn State 21, Rutgers 6: The Lions used a trick play to help them finish off a TD drive. On third-and-9 from the Rutgers 15, McSorley hit Hamilton in the right flat, then Hamilton lateraled to Barkley, who hurdled one defender on his way to the 1. Barkley scored from a yard out two plays later with 6:00 left in the third.
Penn State 28, Rutgers 6: Rutgers tried a fake punt on fourth-and-2 from its 48 but got stuffed on the run. The Lions took over at the 48, and McSorley hit Juwan Johnson on a crossing route that turned into a 25-yard gain to the 13. McSorley then hit Johnson for 9 yards, and Barkley scored from 4 yards on the next play with 1:42 left in the third.
Penn State 35, Rutgers 6: The Lions’ final score came on a nine-play, 62 yard drive, with McSorley finding tight end Mike Gesicki wide open down the left side for a 16-yard TD with 6:52 remaining.
— Compiled by Cory Giger