There were questions going into this season about how effective Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley would be without star running back Saquon Barkley or offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.
While McSorley’s numbers are decidedly down from his first two years as a starter going into Saturday’s regular-season finale against Maryland at Beaver Stadium, one stat is hard to overstate.
With a 20-7 victory over Rutgers last week for the No. 12 Nittany Lions, McSorley became the winningest quarterback in program history. The win was the 30th for McSorley, who passed Todd Blackledge and Tony Sacca for the top spot.
Not bad for a former three-star recruit who was ranked the 15th-best dual threat quarterback in the country as a senior in Ashburn, Va., four spots behind Maryland commit Will Ulmer in the Class of 2014.
What McSorley has done the past three seasons should come as no surprise to those who followed what he did in high school, starting all four years at Briar Woods and leading the team to state titles his first three seasons.
Initially committed to play for James Franklin at Vanderbilt, McSorley recalled during a teleconference this week about hearing that Franklin was headed for Happy Valley after the 2013 season.
McSorley said he was leaving a friend’s house when he got a call from Franklin. Since a dead period for recruiting had just ended, McSorley had not heard from Franklin since he announced he was leaving Vanderbilt.
“I remember being probably a little short on the phone because I was upset with kind of how everything had gone down,” McSorley said. “He was just saying, ‘Hey, sorry all these weeks, how this all panned out, but we want you to come up here. Take a visit. We want you to come play here.’ ”
At the time, Christian Hackenberg, whom former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien had convinced to pick the Nittany Lions over Alabama and Florida, was coming off a freshman year in which he threw for 20 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards.
“At that time, I didn't really know where I was going to go,” McSorley recalled. “It wasn't that I wasn't going to go to Vandy or that I wasn't going to go to Penn State. I was just kind of looking for an option.
“It was towards the end of the recruiting cycle and all that. A lot of the schools that I had been looking at, their classes had filled up, and they weren't able to take any other guys. So I think at that point I was looking for an opportunity.”
The opportunity came when Hackenberg got hurt in the 2016 Taxslayer Bowl against Georgia during McSorley’s redshirt freshman year. Coming in with the Nittany Lions trailing 24-3, McSorley completed 14 of 27 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-17 loss.
After Hackenberg left for the NFL following the season, McSorley took over. It wasn’t the smoothest of transitions for the Nittany Lions, who began the 2016 season 2-2 and were on the verge of an 0-2 start in the Big Ten when they fell behind against Minnesota 13-3.
Led by McSorley, whose 408 yards passing and running were the fourth-highest total in school history, the Nittany Lions clawed back and won in overtime, 29-26, on a 25-yard run by Barkley.
It began a program-turning nine-game winning streak, including a 38-14 win over Maryland when the 4-0 Terps came into Penn State favored under first-year coach DJ Durkin.
Since that Minnesota game, McSorley is 28-6 as a starter, including 8-3 this season without Barkley, now a rookie with the New York Giants, and without Moorhead, now in his first season as coach at Mississippi State.
Franklin, the former Maryland offensive coordinator who coached his share of three-star quarterbacks while in College Park, said that he and McSorley are “kind of kindred spirits and souls” during his weekly news conference Tuesday in State College.
“I don't know if anything has ever come easy to Trace,” Franklin said. “He's had to battle and work for everything he's gotten his whole career. I think he's made for this. I think he's built for this.
“He's earned everything he's gotten in life. No one's given him anything. ... I think that's why there's so much confidence and trust in our locker room and coaches with him.”
Maryland interim coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada said Tuesday that the failed 2-point conversion play wasn't the only one to contribute to the team's 52-51 overtime loss Saturday to No. 10 Ohio State.
Along with the number of victories, McSorley holds school records for career passing yards (9,424), career touchdown passes (74) and single-season touchdown passes (29 in 2016).
Given the problems Maryland has had with even slightly mobile quarterbacks, including Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins Jr., the past two weeks, McSorley presents a huge challenge for the Terps.
What helps Maryland is that Penn State’s wide receivers are much more limited than they’ve been the past two years, which means the Terps can crowd the line of scrimmage more than they could the past two years.
“Great respect for him, he’s a tremendous football player,” Maryland interim coach Matt Canada said about McSorley during a news conference Tuesday. “When you talk about the quarterback position, he’s a winner. I think he’s done a tremendous job his entire career.
“I think they’re doing a great job utilizing his talents. They are running him quite a bit. He continues to find a way to get the first down that he needs, to find a way to get the touchdown that he needs, to find a way to win the game when they need him.”
The memories of what McSorley has done will certainly come back on the team’s senior day. If Franklin’s successful tenure is closely tied to one transcendent star in Barkley, his relationship with McSorley is not too far behind in helping the Nittany Lions accomplish what they have the past three years.
Even in recent weeks, when both the coach and quarterback have found something of an unwanted spotlight — especially during a 42-7 loss at then No. 5 Michigan, when McSorley completed just five of 13 passes for 83 yards and an interception — Franklin said that the redshirt senior’s contribution to the program can’t be overlooked.
“I think early on, he probably didn't get enough credit, and probably now, he's probably getting too much criticism,” Franklin said Tuesday. “That's kind of the life of the head coach and of the quarterback. But he's been just spectacular.
“I think when it's all said and done, I know how that stadium will react for him on Saturday. I know how he'll be looked on in this program for years to come. I think his legacy is as strong as it gets, my opinion. I'm biased, but in my opinion, I think it’s as strong as it gets.”
NOTE: Franklin’s name has surfaced as a leading candidate to replace the embattled Clay Helton at Southern Cal. Both during his weekly news conference and on the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference, Franklin declined to say whether he planned to remain at Penn State. “I don’ think it's fair or right to even be talking about that job from, everything I understand about it, but we're completely focused on Maryland,” Franklin said.