BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Trace McSorley had just done what he’s going to do, no matter what.
He looked down the field.
He stepped into a throw.
He launched it. To streaking wide receiver Saeed Blacknall, the Indiana defender bearing down at him and preparing to deliver a crushing hit designed to make a sophomore quarterback think twice before ever delivering a pass again be damned.
Blacknall caught that throw, a 43-yard gain that led to a touchdown that helped Penn State begin the process of chipping away at a 10-point Hoosiers lead with just 16:09 to play in a bruising game at Memorial Stadium.
It can be argued, though, the yardage won’t stand as the most important part of that play.
Man, did McSorley take some hits Saturday. In the first quarter, hard-nosed Indiana defensive tackle Jacob Robinson shoved right guard Connor McGovern hard into McSorley’s prone body, causing an ankle injury that sapped his mobility. It made the normally nimble Nittany Lions quarterback a sitting duck, either in essence or by design, for the rest of the day.
"Hell no" moment: But that last hit buckled him. He stood in the middle of the field, hunched over. He’d later admit that, after he caught the breath that had been knocked out of him, he felt close to vomiting. Head coach James Franklin noticed and waved in from the sidelines, urging him to fall to a knee while the rest of his teammates ran up to greet Blacknall, so the Nittany Lions could get backup Tommy Stevens into the game. Referee Mike Cannon, sensing McSorley may have taken one hit too many in a game of big hits, sprinted over to him and asked if he needed a break.
“And (McSorley) said, ‘Hell no,’” tight end Mike Gesicki said.
Marcus Allen’s blocked field goal that sparked the upset of Ohio State in October may be the moment that fans will see on Penn State’s team posters or the cover of its media guide next season. But that moment — “Hell no” — might be the one that best characterizes this team and how it has been able to come so far, so fast.
It’s simply not settling for anything less anymore.
Lions overcome miscues: Penn State gave up too many big plays. It squandered too many can’t-miss opportunities. It played poorly on special teams. It turned the ball over a few times for the first time win what seems like forever. It ventured into the latter stages of the third quarter with a 10-point deficit, nothing working on offense, and facing a Hoosiers team desperate to garner bowl eligibility and knock off a top-10 team. This could have been a program defining game for them, too.
But Penn State won, anyway. It scored 31 points in the final 16:09 of the game. McSorley threw the touchdown pass to Chris Godwin that got the Nittany Lions within a field goal of the tie, and after he took that vicious hit, he completed 5 of 7 throws for 140 yards.
“That,” Gesicki said, “just shows that we have tremendous leadership, especially coming from the quarterback.
“It starts with him. It ends with him.”
Taking on McSorley's demeanor: When a program has a quarterback in which it truly believes, there always seems to be something extra in that team. It’s collapse-resistant. It doesn’t panic, ever. It just keeps coming at you. In its last six games, Penn State has taken on McSorley’s demeanor. Three times in that stretch, it has come from behind to win despite double-digit deficits in the second half. And it has won those games different ways: With long throws against Minnesota. With special teams heroics against the Buckeyes. And against the Hoosiers, with guts.
“This team works so hard. I’m playing for my brothers. Everyone is fighting through something,” McSorley said. “I’m not going to take myself out for something like that. It’s football. You’ve got to grind through these things, and these things happen.”
Listen to the amount of players after the game who said they weren’t surprised by the fact this team turned a 10-point deficit into a 14-point win in a matter of about 16 minutes, and what’s striking is that they don’t seem merely to be pitching a company line. They mean it. It’s a sign that this team’s development from a Big Ten also-ran to a top-10 ranking is not just spurred by talent shining through.
It’s an attitude coming together, as well.
A different era: The days when sanctions or youth or coaching transitions were acceptable reasons to accept defeat are over. Gesicki said as much. Two seasons ago, then-quarterback Christian Hackenberg, like McSorley a sophomore at the time, often was criticized for his actions on the sideline after things didn’t go the offense’s way on the field. Yelling at coaches. Spiking his helmet. Obvious signs of frustration that, to his credit, he largely eliminated as a junior.
McSorley doesn’t show those tendencies now, though. He’s business as usual, every snap, whether he throws a touchdown pass, runs for a first down, fires an interception or is drilled by a charging linebacker, and players tend to play with the attitude of their quarterback. In 2012, the Nittany Lions were fearless on offense, because Matt McGloin was fearless. In 2013, the Nittany Lions were a confident offense, because Hackenberg was a confident quarterback. This season, they’re an unshakable offense, because McSorley has been unshakable.
“He’s a tough sucker, he really is,” head coach James Franklin said. “He is smart. He is resilient. He is a playmaker. And guys believe in him. They really do.”
After he clawed his way through it all, after he led his team to a win satisfying not because it was effortless but because it was anything but, McSorley limped into the media room as he limped around the field for most of the afternoon, sat in front of the media practically covered in ice.
So, he was asked, how are you feeling after all of that?
“Better than ever,” he said.