Just one week prior to Penn State’s dramatic comeback versus Minnesota the team suffered one of the more demoralizing losses in recent memory. On the road, facing then-ranked No. 4 Michigan, the Lions showed deficiencies on many levels along the way to losing 49-10. Linebacker depth was an issue, the offensive line had yet to gel, and it was uncertain whether Trace McSorley was going to be the answer at quarterback for PSU.
Off to a 2-2 start, with a very difficult win versus Temple included in that tally, the future looked bleak for James Franklin and his team should it lose at home to the Gophers and drop to 2-3. Remaining on the schedule were games with Iowa, Michigan State, Indiana, and Ohio State that were all anticipated, at the time of the Minnesota game, to be tough battles.
Heading into the Minnesota game, Trace McSorley showed flashes of his skills, but had not yet put together a full performance. Through four games he had a total of 32 yards rushing on 41 carries. He was having trouble with ball security in just about every way possible; fumbling snaps from center, bobbling exchanges with running backs, and throwing an interception in three straight games. That would all change on October 1, 2016, when the Gophers came to State College.
McSorley nearly matched his season rushing total late in the game, on a critical 26-yard scramble to get Penn State into position to tie the game with a late field goal. He finished with 73 yards rushing, an effort that began a three-game stretch where he rushed for 217 yards in wins over Minnesota, Maryland, and Ohio State. It also began a streak of 8 out of 9 games in which he did not throw an interception. The No. 9 play in our Top Ten Plays of 2016, and many others on the list, would not have happened had McSorley been unable to make two plays early in the final drive of regulation.
The drive started with just 54 seconds remaining on the clock, no timeouts for the Lions, on its own 25 yard line. Minnesota had just bled most of the remaining clock on the way to kicking a field goal to go ahead 23-20. On the first play from scrimmage, McSorley initially looked downfield but saw double-coverage. He began to scramble to buy time or gain yards with his feet, but was immediately smothered by two Gopher defenders. Here is the end of the play.
McSorley was able to get the ball out of his hand, in the direction of a receiver, without taking what could have been a devastating sack. Several more seconds would have come off the clock as receivers down the field rushed back to the line of scrimmage to clock the ball. That scenario would have resulted in 3rd and 20 with roughly 35 seconds to play, needing 50 yards to get to the outer edges of field goal range for Tyler Davis.
Instead Penn State took a shot downfield on a wheel route to Saquon Barkley on second down. The play did not work but the clock once again stopped, setting up another critical play on the drive. Once again McSorley was forced to leave the pocket early. This time he ran backward, gaining distance from the rush while giving his target, Chris Godwin, time to get downfield.
They say that a quarterback should not throw off his back foot. They say that it isn’t wise to throw late over the middle. Sometimes they are wrong.
Watch No. 20 for Minnesota, linebacker Julian Huff, just before the snap. He does a good job of waiting, bringing a fifth rusher right up the middle on center Brian Gaia. Gaia recognized the blitz, but got out of position when Huff faked as though he was coming to Gaia’s right side, but instead went left. It left McSorley in a world of trouble. Already five yards behind the line of scrimmage when he took the snap, he ran another eight yards backwards and then threw the ball forward 33 yards to a diving Godwin.
There are many ways to measure a quarterback and few of them favor McSorley. His velocity on the 20-yard out is probably not what the NFL is looking for in a quarterback. He isn’t very tall. On that play he showed nice touch on a 33-yard toss, while running backward, in a clutch situation. They don’t run that drill at the NFL combine, but it is the type of skill that can win a game.
A couple of plays later Penn State found itself at midfield, needing at least fifteen yards to get into position for a long field goal attempt, 20 or more for a better shot statistically. McSorley made the play of the season up to that point.
Flushed out of the pocket, with double coverage downfield, McSorley took the ball well inside Tyler Davis’ range with a 26 yard scoot out of bounds. Coverage was tight down the field with nowhere for McSorley to take a shot. The Gophers sent four rushers, which were picked up by four Penn State lineman, while Brian Gaia employed what appears to be Mime Technique at center; mimicking the actions of a pass-blocker while not actually engaging with a defender.
McSorley was able to set up a solid attempt for Davis from just 40 yards out, which sent the game into overtime. In a glimpse of what was to come later in the season, dare I call it moxie, Penn State chose to take a shot into the end zone prior to sending Davis out to attempt the kick. The throw to Chris Godwin fell short and safely to the turf, stopping the clock and allowing Davis to attempt the 40 yard kick from the left hash mark.
This video shows the scene inside Beaver Stadium from the time McSorley made the 26-yard scramble. There had not been anything cheer about so enthusiastically through the first four games of the season up to that moment. Had the Lions fell short at any point in the comeback attempt, this celebration never would have happened. It’s possible that many more celebrations later in the season would not have happened had the team fallen to 2-3, with the world starting to close in around the coaches and players.
In a season with as many highlights as 2016 provided it is easy to forget how tenuous Penn State’s hold on having a successful campaign was through nearly five games played. The trajectory of the season could have been negatively affected by more than just one game in the loss column without the McSorley scramble and overall team effort to come back late in the game. Instead of a run to the Big Ten Championship and a memorable Rose Bowl, the team could have been facing an uphill battle just to play in a meaningful bowl game.