ORLANDO – Trace McSorley was among the last players to leave the Penn State locker room at Camping World Stadium on Tuesday, following the Nittany Lions’ 27-24 loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, hobbling with a boot on his right foot to meet with the media.
At one time, it looked as though McSorley’s 40th and final start at quarterback for the Lions (9-4) would end prematurely. He thought he injured his foot in the second quarter on a non-contact play, he said. When the third quarter began, redshirt freshman Sean Clifford was taking the snaps.
But the durability and guts that McSorley exhibited in rolling up 31 wins as a starter came to the front one last time. After one series on the sideline, the fifth-year senior returned and sparked a comeback from what was a 27-7 deficit after three quarters with a touchdown run and a TD pass to freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth.
“I was really determined,” said McSorley, who compiled 321 yards of total offense. “They [doctors] were telling me, ‘If you can manage the pain and you feel you can go,’ then they were going to let me go. So, then it became a deal of managing it, and if I could go, I was going to go.
“I didn’t want my career personally to end like that. And also I wanted to be out there with my teammates. I knew that was going to be the last time that I was going to be able to suit up with those guys. I’ve gone through too much with that group of men as far as winter workouts, spring ball, summer conditioning … to end on something where it was pain management.”
At halftime, a program spokeswoman said McSorley had a broken bone in his foot. After the game, McSorley said it was “unclear” what the injury was. Head coach James Franklin added that while he did not want to go into specifics, the doctors told him his quarterback was good to go as long as he could manage the pain.
At its worst, the pain was “a 7 or 8” on a scale of 1 to 10, McSorley said. Adrenalin eventually kicked in, he said, and he went back in the game.
Penn State never led, and special teams put the Lions in a first-half hole. A failed fake punt on the opening drive, a 58-yard punt-return touchdown by the Wildcats’ Lynn Bowden late in the opening quarter, and a pair of missed field goals by freshman Jake Pinegar helped Kentucky (10-3) take a 10-0 lead.
McSorley’s 1-yard pass to tight end Nick Bowers made it 10-7 at halftime, but the Wildcats scored 17 unanswered points in the third quarter to take control. Benny Snell Jr., who rushed for 144 yards in 26 carries, scored a pair of touchdowns.
Then, McSorley, who completed nine of his last 14 passes for 143 yards, came to the rescue. He drove the Lions 75 yards in 10 plays, and his 24-yard pass to DeAndre Thompkins set up his 1-yard TD run to make it 27-14.
On the next drive, McSorley found Jahan Dotson for 24 yards on a third-and-18 and completed a pair of passes to Freiermuth, including an 18-yard scoring toss that got Penn State to 27-21 with 9 minutes left to play.
Another Kentucky three-and-out gave the surging Nittany Lions the ball back. They moved from their own 25 to the Wildcats 14, and on third down, McSorley had K.J. Hamler open on a crossing pattern that might have resulted in a touchdown, but his pass was deflected.
With seven yards to go for a first down, Franklin opted for a field goal, and Pinegar drilled a 32-yarder with 4:12 remaining. This left it to the Lions' defense to get the ball back for the tying or winning score.
It didn’t happen. Snell ran the ball eight straight times and earned two first downs. The Nittany Lions used all three of their timeouts and got the ball back with only 1 second remaining and 83 yards to the end zone. A pass to Thompkins, followed by a lateral to Hamler, resulted in a fumble that Kentucky recovered, and that was the game.
Still, McSorley created one more memory for his coaches, teammates, and fans before leaving.