Kentucky controlled the momentum at the Citrus Bowl from the very first series when coach James Franklin chose to attempt a fake punt on Penn State’s side of the field. The attempt failed, Kentucky scored 3 points moments later on a short field.
After weathering the storm that the decision created along with some solid play by the Wildcats, Penn State was down just 10-7 late in the first half, facing 4th and short at the 42. Franklin trusted his defense to get the ball back, so he punted the ball away. Three plays later, Trace McSorley was back in, leading a drive that would end in a missed field goal that could have tied the game at the half.
Late in the game, facing a similar situation, Franklin chose to kick a field goal when needing 6 points to tie, trusting his defense to get the ball back into the hands of Trace McSorley. That particular decision did not work out, as well all know.
It is unlikely that the team would have been in position to tie or go ahead so late in the 4th quarter had Trace McSorley not been able to re-enter the game after suffering what was first reported, incorrectly, as a broken foot that would keep him out for the rest of the game, ending his career as a Lion.
Following half time we watched from the booth as Sean Clifford appeared to be preparing to play. On the first series of the second half Kentucky scored a touchdown to take a 17-7 lead. Clifford entered the game and McSorley disappeared into the privacy tent that was set up on the sideline. Koa Farmer entered the tent and spent the next few minutes in there with McSorley.
After a pair of runs by Miles Sanders got a first down, the next run went for no gain. Clifford threw a great deep ball on the next play but it was dropped. On 3rd down, Clifford was unable to make the read in time to avoid a sack. Kentucky took the ball and went down the field, adding three points to stretch the lead to 20-7.
With Penn State fans beginning to feel as though the game was slipping away, we watched as Trace McSorley warmed up, running up and down the sideline. From the booth, using binoculars, I was able to see inside of McSorley’s helmet as he warmed up. His facial expression was blank, stoic. We discussed how it didn’t appear that the report was accurate that McSorley was done for the day; maybe he didn’t have a broken foot as reported either.
McSorley walked over to Sean Clifford, put his hand on Clifford’s hip and then talked to him briefly. Then when the offense took the field, it was McSorley who went out there. Here is what coach Franklin and McSorley said about the decision.
Following the game, McSorley explained that he and the team were still unsure whether the foot was broken. The report that he was not coming back into the game was wrong, and so too was the part about his foot being broken. He was five minutes late for the press conference following the game. It was explained that in that time, he and the team doctors discussed his missing the press conference, his final one as a Penn State player, to go get it checked out instead.
McSorley was told that there would be no further injury should he wait long enough to do the press conference, as was the case with his decision to play on the ailing foot during the game. So he sat there, in pain but not showing it, and gave his interview before even knowing for himself whether the foot was broken.
No one ever questioned that Trace McSorley is a gamer, a winner. Watching him warm up with an injured foot, stepping on it and not making a single wince, not limping, but being in pain. It was a reminder of the toughness that was required to stay on the field for the past 40 games since the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Before the injury to his knee this season, when people asked me what impressed me most about McSorley as a player, I would say that it was his ability to keep himself from being injured. With all the running that he has done, at his size, and taking hits while passing, toughness isn’t the only thing that kept him from missing time. He had to be smart about what he was doing, surrounded by mountainous man intent on knocking him to the ground.
The toughness McSorley showed with the injury surpassed what we normally see in the modern game on the field. While other players around the country sat out their final collegiate game to prepare for the NFL draft, and to avoid injury, McSorley was playing with what may have been a broken foot. He also delayed the process of recovery slightly by sitting through the final press conference, to boot.
All puns aside, the turning point of the game was McSorley’s ability to play with pain. Had he not re-entered the game it is unlikely that the team would have had a chance to win after trailing by 20 points in the fourth quarter.
If there was a player in the NFL draft that needed to show what he could do, in the Senior Bowl and during workouts, it was McSorley. He may miss that chance if the foot does not cooperate. The Senior Bowl is fewer than three weeks away and practices start soon.
One thing is for sure, the scouts and coaches will be blown away when meeting with McSorley. What he did on the field may not be enough to land him an NFL job, and he may not be healthy enough to show it in practice or during the Senior Bowl. What may get him an extra look is his character.
It is a cliche sometimes in sports to talk about a player that has exceptional character or courage. Sometimes sports reporters try to make heroes out of ordinary folk. But Trace McSorley is no ordinary football player. He is a leader, a hard worker, and a guy that any team would want in the locker room.
The knock on McSorley as far as the NFL goes is that he is half of a foot too short. On Tuesday he was short one whole foot and still nearly led his team to victory. Wherever his future leads him, he will always be one step ahead of everyone else, leading the way with his example, hard work, and toughness.