With Penn State trailing 24-3 late in the third quarter, and an offense that had done essentially nothing since losing star quarterback Christian Hackenberg to injury, things looked mighty bleak for the Nittany Lions. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral. Redshirt freshman quarterback Trace McSorley, who had lead the offense to just 50 yards in his first five series, suddenly came to life, engineering touchdown drives of 75 and 58 yards to pull PSU back within one score. It was not until a last second hail mary was knocked down at the goal line that the 24-17 final score was set.
A loss is a loss, and as James Franklin said post game, there are no moral victories. But, the season's final 20 minutes at least offered fans a glimmer of hope in what was an otherwise disappointing finish to the 2015 campaign.
Perhaps the greatest letdown of the game was seeing Hackenberg's season, and PSU career, end in sweats on the sideline, especially after the start he had. The junior signal caller was dialed in from the start, victimized more by drops than poor decisions. Yes, there was an interception on the first drive, but the pass hit Saquon Barkley in the hands before ending up with Georgia. That pick lead to the first points of the day, a 44 yard field goal aided by an Anthony Zettel offside call.
Following the early score, the punters took over. There were six total punts (three a side) before the Lions would mount their first scoring drive of the day. Pinned back at his own 11 yard line, Hackenberg scrambled for six yards, in what was possibly the biggest play of the game. As he landed on his right shoulder, a Georgia lineman landed on him. Despite being in obvious pain, the junior quarterback stayed in the game, and completed his next three passes for 75 yards, all to Chris Godwin, to take PSU down to the Georgia 18. After a Barkley run, what turned out to the final pass of a record breaking career fell incomplete, intended for Kyle Carter. Trace McSorley would enter on third down, and ran for two yards, setting up a Tyler Davis field goal to tie the game.
Georgia responded with the first of three unanswered touchdown drives, going 72 yards in just three plays to retake the lead. The scoring play came on a Terry Godwin wildcat play. The Bulldog receiver drew the PSU defense in on the run, and hit a wide open Malcolm Mitchell for 44 yards and the lead.
Penn State was unable to respond, and turned the ball over on downs after a promising Brandon Polk kickoff return out to the 37 on the ensuing kickoff. The PSU defense remained strong, forcing a Georgia punt with a short field. The UGA punt put the Lions back at their own 17, but three plays and only six yards later, Georgia had the ball back at their own 42, and 1:47 remaining on the clock. Grayson Lambert ultimately found (Terry) Godwin in the corner of the end zone from 17 yards out to put the Dawgs up two scores heading into halftime.
Georgia had an early chance to increase the lead to three possessions early in the third quarter following a long Isaiah McKenzie punt return to the PSU 23. With their main kicker out of the game after suffering an ankle injury, UGA punter Collin Barber pushed the 48 yard field goal wide, giving Penn State their first bit of life since Hackenberg's injury.
The Lions would ultimately turn the ball over on downs, but the 25 yards gained on the drive equaled the total yardage gained on the previous four drives since McSorley entered the game. On the other hand, the short field set up Georgia's third touchdown drive of the day, capped by Sony Michel's 22 yard run.
Following a touchback, with their backs against the wall, the Penn State offense finally came alive. Facing third and six, and perhaps their last chance to get back into the game, McSorley found (Chris) Godwin for 21 yards and a crucial first down at midfield. Five plays later, it was fourth down and seven, with the ball at the Georgia 12. The mountain would get even higher before the Lions even snapped the ball, after being whistled for a false start. With the game on the line, McSorley threw for Geno Lewis in the back corner of the end zone. The junior receiver went up to get the ball, and came down with at least one foot, if not both, in bounds, and suddenly PSU was back in the game.
After trading punts, the Nittany Lions offense closed the gap to just one score. Taking over at their own 42, and following a 20 yard Saquon Barkley run around the right side, McSorley faced another crucial fourth down. Needing eight yards, the young QB found Lewis for 16 yards, down to the UGA 20. Two plays later, it was a one score game. McSorley threw a perfect strike to DaeSean Hamilton on the post, where the sophomore receiver hauled in a diving catch.
6:14 remained in the game, and with two timeouts, the Lions defense needed just one more stop. It came, but only after Georgia ate up 48 yards of field position, and 4:22 of clock. With the starting kicker out, and the punter having already missed, interim head coach, and South Carolina offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon opted to put the game away with a fourth down and one yard conversion. The Penn State line blew the play up from the start, stopping Keith Marshall for a loss of two yards.
With 1:52 remaining on the clock, no timeouts, and a redshirt freshman at the controls, PSU needed 73 yards to force overtime. It was hardly a thing of beauty, but McSorley converted two fourth downs, and brought the Lions down to the UGA 39 yard line with eight seconds remaining. The desperation hail mary was knocked down at the goal line, ending the game, and the 2015 season.
Three Completed Unrelated, Probably Useless Thoughts
1. Plenty will be written about Christian Hackenberg, both here and elsewhere, in the coming days. The last two years have certainly not been what he signed up for, but Hack's fingerprints will be all over this program for a long time. Sure, there are the records, but he is on a very short list of people who kept this whole thing afloat in July of 2012. He made it ok for top high school players to come to Penn State, despite the situation the program found itself in. For that, and for so much more, we all owe Christian a huge thank you.
2. Along with that, thank you to a small, but just as crucial group of seniors, and Austin Johnson too. These young men ended up going through three coaching staffs in four or five seasons, and more turmoil than any college football player ever deserves. Going out with four straight losses is not what you deserved, but the foundation has been laid for what appears to be a bright future.
3. James Franklin said yesterday that for the first time since the 2012, the 2016 season will be played without the cloud of sanctions. While technically that may not be true after the removal of any remaining limitations a year ago, next season's version of Penn State football does feel an awful lot like the beginning of that next era. There are of course members of that 2013 recruiting class left on the roster, but the Lions will have a roster of 85 recruited scholarship players, and a third straight "full" recruiting class when camp opens in August, and perhaps most symbolic, and new quarterback under center, working with a new offensive coordinator.