In the second half of a blowout at The Big House, Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens found themselves in a waiting game. And all the while, Penn State fans in the Michigan Stadium nosebleeds and media members in the press box alike were left shaking their heads.
Why was McSorley replaced by Stevens in the third quarter of a three-score game? Why did McSorley re-enter when Michigan’s lead ballooned to 28-0? Why did the captain take a seat again? And — most puzzling — why was the lifeblood of Penn State’s program still playing, with a knee brace strapped to his right leg, with the Nittany Lions down 35-0 in the fourth?
Mired in a meltdown at the hands of Michigan, Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin flip-flopped between McSorley and Stevens. At the time, the second-half carousel between the hampered signal-caller and and barely-tested backup was perplexing to say the least. And after the game, little clarity was brought to the situation.
“We were going back and forth just by what the coaches felt,” McSorley said following the 42-7 defeat. “Me and (Stevens), we were just waiting to hear what they were saying before the next drive, so we knew what was going to happen.”
When asked why he and McSorley switched in and out in the second half, Stevens simply said, “I’m not sure.”
The confusion began with 56 seconds left in the third quarter. Penn State trailed 21-0, and the Nittany Lions had just 92 yards on 30 plays to that point. McSorley — who spent extra hours in the training room all week working on an apparent knee injury — had to bounce back from arguably his worst performance to date.
Except he wasn’t given the opportunity. McSorley was healthy enough to play. But Franklin felt the Nittany Lions needed a “spark,” so McSorley was pulled in favor of Stevens. That didn’t go well.
After an 18-yard run, Stevens rolled left and threw in the general vicinity of Brandon Polk across his body. The fan favorite’s toss was picked off by Michigan’s Brandon Watson, who returned it to the house for a 62-yard touchdown. Michigan led 28-0. It was the proverbial nail in the coffin. And yet, McSorley surprisingly returned to the game on the following drive.
“We can’t turn the ball over in those situations. So we felt like we had to go back to Trace,” Franklin said. “It wasn’t a situation where the guy just made a great play. The last thing we want to do when we’re in a situation like we were in tonight is start turning the ball over. That was the decision to go back.”
Stevens said, “No,” when asked if he was given a reason as to why he was pulled post-INT. McSorley wasn’t given a reason why he was put back in, either.
“Coach Franklin came over and said, ‘You’re going back in,’” McSorley recalled. “That’s how that went down.”
On McSorley’s first play back, he was twisted to the ground by Michigan defensive lineman Kwite Paye. The quarterback was slow to get up, and as the third-quarter clock hit zero, McSorley made his way to the blue medical tent. Stevens was in the game to start the fourth, and that made sense. What didn’t is what happened next.
After Stevens’ series stalled and the Wolverines piled on with another score, Michigan kicked off with a 35-0 lead. On the TV broadcast, sideline reporter Maria Taylor reported that McSorley might be done for the night. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit chimed in, “He should be.”
But McSorley jogged onto the field. And on the first snap back, he threw a high pass to tight end Nick Bowers, which deflected and landed in the hands of Michigan cornerback David Long. Wolverines defensive end Chase Winovich mocked the quarterback with his signature home run celebration as Michigan basked in the moment.
From that point on, McSorley’s day was done. And he could do nothing but be disappointed coming off the field.
“Honestly, I was saying expletives to myself,” McSorley said. “We played sloppy. The few opportunities that we had, we missed. At times, when we had to make a tough play, we didn’t make it. We made it worse. I didn’t play near to the standard that I needed to. At that point, it was frustration — frustration with myself.”
But quite frankly, McSorley’s interception might have been the best thing that happened to him.
The game was lost. The quarterback’s heroic return last weekend against Iowa was one thing; but McSorley was not going to lead a comeback down 35 with nine minutes to go. If he doesn’t throw an interception, who’s to say Winovich, Rashan Gary or Josh Uche doesn’t sack McSorley on the next play? Who’s to say the signal-caller doesn’t further injure his knee? He could have taken a meaningless, season-ending hit.
Franklin said, “It’s hard taking Trace McSorley off the field.” But it shouldn’t have been when he’s not 100 percent healthy, down five touchdowns against the best defense in college football. The same defense that had revenge on its mind. The same group that sacked McSorley four times already.
When asked if he ever felt uncomfortable or questioned why he was in the game in the fourth quarter, McSorley answered how everyone would expect: “No. That never crossed my mind. Not one time.”
But it should have crossed Franklin’s mind. Instead, Nittany Lion fans left Michigan Stadium Saturday night confused, wondering why McSorley was pulled earlier — and why he wasn’t later.