Nittany Lions rally, but fall short to Wildcats
Special teams problems contribute to early deficit
ORLANDO, Fla. — Penn State had a chance at the end to win the Citrus Bowl, incredibly enough, despite spending most of the afternoon shooting itself in the foot.
All hope appeared to be lost when news surfaced that quarterback Trace McSorley had suffered a broken foot and was done for the day.
The Nittany Lions’ special teams already had looked broken, putting the team in an early hole. That hole got bigger — 20 points late in the third quarter — and PSU appeared to be headed for blowout city against a fired-up Kentucky team looking for a signature win on a national stage.
But McSorley somehow was able to keep playing, led the No. 12 Lions back and had the team in position to take the lead with four minutes to go.
One questionable fourth-down decision, however, by coach James Franklin loomed large, and PSU wound up ending its season in disappointing fashion with a 27-24 loss Tuesday before 59,167 fans at Camping World Stadium.
“We didn’t play well for four quarters,” Franklin said. “We had a really good second half.”
That’s simply not good enough, the coach acknowledged, to beat a solid team in a New Year’s Day bowl game.
Penn State’s special teams had an embarrassing first half, handing No. 16 Kentucky 10 points with numerous mistakes. The Lions’ offense had opportunities to make plays in the first half but fizzled time and again, and they were down 10-7 at the break.
Kentucky had only 87 yards of offense in the first half, then came out and moved the ball with ease on a 65-yard TD drive to start the second half for a 17-7 lead.
Things looked bleak for PSU moments later when backup quarterback Sean Clifford took the field for the first offensive series of the second half. Maybe, some were thinking, the Penn State coaches just wanted to give Clifford some experience in the bowl game.
Nope. A PSU spokesperson told a couple of reporters in the press box that McSorley had a broken foot, leaving everyone to believe his day and college career were over.
Clifford’s offensive series ended quickly, Kentucky got the ball back and drove inside the PSU 10. The Lions’ defense held this time, and the Wildcats kicked a field goal for a 20-7 lead.
Lo and behold, just minutes after the report of McSorley having a broken foot, there was No. 9 going back out onto the field to lead the offense.
It was, in all honesty, stunning to see.
McSorley had been limping around for several minutes on the sideline trying to get himself going, but that was before the broken foot report.
“He’s a soldier, he’s a warrior, he’s our leader,” PSU receiver KJ Hamler said, “so he’s going to find some type of way to get back in the game to help us win.”
McSorley, who said he suffered the injury sometime in the second quarter, was in a lot of pain, calling it an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. But the doctors told him he couldn’t hurt his foot anymore than it had already been hurt, so if he could handle the pain, he could go back in the game.
Running back Miles Sanders sure was pumped to see the quarterback going back in to play.
“He said, ‘Let’s go win the game,'” Sanders said of McSorley. “I got excited. I actually punched him in the chest when I saw him.”
McSorley’s first action back on the field went badly, as he underthrew a deep pass to Juwan Johnson and had it picked off. Kentucky turned that possession into another touchdown drive, with Benny Snell’s 12-yard score making it 27-7 with 1:35 left in the third quarter.
McSorley came back out on the next series and looked like his usual self, running and throwing the ball for big gains on a 10-play, 75-yard TD drive that ended with him scoring from a yard out. There was still 13:37 left to play, and PSU had a shot, down just 27-14.
The Lions’ defense forced a three-and-out on Kentucky’s next series, and PSU got the ball right back. McSorley was sacked on first down, but on third-and-18, he hit Jahan Dotson for 24 yards to keep the drive alive.
McSorley capped the drive with an 18-yard TD pass to tight end Pat Freiermuth, pulling PSU within 27-21 with 9:00 left.
“Trace shows every week how tough he is and how much of a leader and how much this game means to him,” Sanders said. “I respect Trace a lot. I learned a lot from him. He’s going to forever be known as a legend here.”
McSorley’s legend seemed like it could reach epic proportions in his final game, as again Penn State’s defense forced a three-and-out to give the offense the ball right back.
In a storybook world, McSorley would have led another TD drive to win the game.
But this game did not have a storybook ending for the quarterback or Penn State.
The Lions moved down the field and had first down at the Wildcats’ 17 with five minutes left. McSorley misfired on first down, ran for 3 yards on second down and then threw another incompletion on third down.
Penn State (9-4) faced fourth-and-7 at the 14 with 4:15 remaining and trailing by six. The offense had been rolling, pretty much unstoppable for the entire quarter, and McSorley has always made clutch plays.
But Franklin decided to kick a field goal instead of going for it, and Jake Pinegar booted a 32-yarder with 4:12 to go to make it 27-24.
“It really was going to come down to how close we could get it to fourth-and-short,” Franklin said. “As well as our defense had been playing all day long and with us having three timeouts left, we were either going to have to score in that situation if we went for it, or we were going to have to kick a field goal.”
The fourth-down decision made sense to some, but not to others as it set off a firestorm for armchair quarterbacks on social media.
Kentucky (10-3) got the ball back at its 25 with 4:12 to go. Penn State could have allowed one first down and still gotten the ball back with a chance to win, because it had three timeouts, but the Lions could not give up two first downs in that spot.
The Wildcats turned to their workhorse, Snell, who carried the ball three times for 11 yards and a first down. Snell then gained 4 and 6 yards on the next two carries for another first down.
Kentucky didn’t get a third first down and had to punt back to PSU, but there was only one second left and the Lions were at their own 17. They ran one pass play and fumbled trying to lateral, ending the game and the season.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” Franklin said. “The losses that we had this year, they’re hard. They’re hard for us to swallow. They’re hard for the fan base to swallow.”