Setback, performance leave McSorley ‘empty’
UNIVERSITY PARK — Trace McSorley became Penn State’s all-time leading passer in the first quarter Saturday, breaking Christian Hackenberg’s record of 8,457 yards, and when the feat was announced to the Beaver Stadium crowd, McSorley drew an immediate standing ovation.
Three hours later, it did little to console him.
“It will be great in however long, when I graduate and I’m done here and I look back,” McSorley said of the record. “But right now, that’s kind of empty to me. We lost the game. At the end of the day, that’s what you’re graded on.”
As was the case two weeks ago, when the Nittany Lions’ defense could not finish off Ohio State and lost a fourth-quarter lead, Saturday’s 21-17 defeat to Michigan State once again lacked a Penn State knockout punch that James Franklin’s program — for all the strides it has made — desperately needs.
You can pin this loss on a number of individual plays, such as the dropped interceptions that could have clinched the game and the continued spotty special teams play, but unlike the Ohio State game when McSorley himself accounted for 461 yards, this game rested at the feet of Penn State’s offense.
“Two weeks ago, I thought we played good enough to win, and we just didn’t,” McSorley, now with 8,610 career yards, said. “Today, we didn’t play good enough to win. I didn’t play good enough to win.”
McSorley completed 19-of-32 for 192 yards and a touchdown. He ran 13 times for 37 yards with a long gainer of just 10. Clearly, the veteran defensive coaches in the Big Ten — Urban Meyer and Greg Schiano of Ohio State and now Mark Dantonio of Michigan State — have developed an effective spy package on Penn State’s most dangerous player.
Since his first action way back in the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl, McSorley has shouldered the offensive responsibility and been a stand-up leader.
That was the case again Saturday as, despite seeing the Lions’ chances for the College Football Playoff and Big Ten title game blown up — not to mention any case for his heretofore deserved Heisman Trophy consideration — McSorley was the first player out to meet the media and put into perspective the disappointment.
He pulled no punches.
“I wasn’t myself today,” he said. “That’s on me. Our team didn’t play well enough to deserve to win. There’s a lot of throws I want back, a lot of decisions in the run game I’ll want back when I look at the film.”
The performance, he said, “makes you think you’re not as good as you thought you were.”
Though Michigan State came in with a rugged run defense and a porous secondary, the Spartans flipped the script against Penn State, which ran well enough (gaining 205 yards) but didn’t have a pass play of more than 25 yards.
“I saw what I’ve seen all year,” McSorley said. “I just wasn’t accurate.”
The Lions managed a season-low 14 first downs, and practically abandoned a deep passing game.
“The issue was that we weren’t able to throw the ball against a team that people were having a lot of success throwing the ball,” Franklin said.
McSorley was sacked just once and seemed to have enough time, but the Lions’ receivers did not create enough separation. The ground game sprung two big runs (78 and 48) for Miles Sanders but could not melt the clock with the chance to clinch the game in the fourth quarter.
“I probably started pressing too much and trying to make a play,” McSorley said. “It ended up backfiring and hurting the team.”
Penn State’s two possessions with a 17-14 lead produced just one first down.
“We didn’t execute a four-minute situation,” McSorley said. “We had two chances to end the game on our terms, and that’s something we’ve got to be better at. When we got to a point where we needed to make plays, I wasn’t able to do it.”
Franklin actually came into the game feeling Ohio State was in the rear-view mirror, saying Tuesday’s practice may have been the best in his five-year PSU tenure.
“I didn’t see this coming In,” McSorley said. “There were no red flags.”
While Franklin was passionate after losing to Ohio State, unleashing his pledge to build an elite program, he was blunt Saturday.
He felt the Lions let Michigan State hang around, and he was right. But he was also critical of his team’s fundamentals, its penchant for fumbling, its line of scrimmage operation, its kicking and its lack of poise.
He helped whip the Nittany Nation into a frenzy prior to Ohio State and, two brutal losses later, now has a discouraged fan base on his hands.
Everything will be questioned, including how much the program misses Joe Moorhead, as the Lions pick up the pieces and try to salvage the season.
“We just have to come together,” McSorley said. “We can’t get defensive. We can’t start pointing fingers. We can’t look at anything else but ourselves. We have to be stronger now than ever.
“Now is the time we’ll figure out the kind of team we have.”
Unfortunately for Penn State, these games aren’t best two-out-of-three.
These last two weeks have shown what kind of team the Nittany Lions have, this year and last year. They’re good but not great and certainly not elite.
And they definitely aren’t good enough to compensate when their quarterback, who has carried the team for three years, finally doesn’t play his best game.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.