ORLANDO — James Franklin says that he can talk about Trace McSorley for hours. Lord knows he’s done that throughout McSorley’s 3 years as a starter.
The Penn State coach praises his leadership, his commitment to excellence on and off the field and all that other coach speak, but it’s clear. Franklin is going to miss McSorley, who played his last game on Tuesday.
It was McSorley, of course, who helped Franklin win a potential job-saving B1G Championship back in 2016. It was McSorley who ditched his commitment to Vanderbilt and followed Franklin to Penn State after he got the job. It was McSorley who will go down as the most prolific quarterbacks in Penn State history and one of the best to play the position this decade.
That’s why it made zero sense that once again with the game on the line, Franklin took the ball out of McSorley’s hands.
Franklin decided that on 4th and 7 from the 15-yard line with the Lions down 6 points and carrying all the momentum thanks to McSorley’s late comeback, the field goal was the play there. As a result, Penn State made it a 3-point game, only to watch Kentucky convert multiple first downs and give the ball back to McSorley — with 1 second left.
Hindsight is 20/20. Regular sight should’ve seen that coming. It was eerily similar feeling to when Franklin inexplicably decided against Ohio State on 4th and 5 that a handoff to tailback Miles Sanders was the play with the game on the line.
Tuesday’s decision was worse, though. Way worse. And it should haunt Franklin forever … again.
It wasn’t just that McSorley came into the Citrus Bowl owning basically every record for a Penn State quarterback. Had the senior been awful on Tuesday, kicking the late field goal to make it a 3-score would’ve been an easy decision for Franklin that probably wouldn’t have been that questionable.
McSorley wasn’t awful though. At least not in the fourth quarter. In fact, he was putting together the ultimate swan song to close his career.
It was almost too perfect of an ending. McSorley didn’t even start in the second half because of a foot injury. It looked like his day was done, especially when Penn State made the announcement to in-house media that McSorley was out for the game with a broken foot (apparently that was a bit premature and they backtracked on the initial diagnosis).
Whatever the case, McSorley clearly had some sort of injury. But that didn’t stop him from talking to the training staff and getting the OK to go in the game. When McSorley under-threw Juwan Johnson and was intercepted, it looked like any hope of a late comeback with the hobbled quarterback was out the window.
That wouldn’t have been a fitting way for McSorley to end his career. The same guy who was told by Power 5 schools everywhere that he’d have a future as a defensive back wasn’t the “limp off the field in his final game” type. He was the type to prove doubters wrong, of which there were many when Benny Snell’s touchdown made it a 27-7 Kentucky lead at the end of the third quarter.
All it took was one Penn State scoring drive — capped by a 1-yard McSorley rushing touchdown — to turn that narrative around.
Penn State players like Nick Bowers and Jan Johnson said after the game that they didn’t have any doubt that McSorley was about to will them back to victory after that play.
“That really boosted our hopes. We were super excited. We just ran out of time,” Bowers said.
Ran out of time. Interesting way to phrase that.
No Penn State player was going to come out and say the obvious. That is, “yeah, we were upset that the offense didn’t get to stay on the field to try and convert on 4th and 7. With how locked in Trace was, we thought we could’ve taken the lead right there.”
And obviously, Franklin wasn’t about to wear the egg that was on his face for yet again making the wrong decision with the game on the line.
In the postgame press conference, I asked Franklin how it’ll sit with him knowing that with the game on the line against Ohio State and again on Tuesday, he took the ball out of his star quarterback’s hands.
Cover your eyes, Penn State fans. You won’t like the answer from your coach, who made $5 million this year (including that $200,000 bowl bonus).
“Yeah, ya know. Our biggest issue offensively this year … we rushed for more yards this year after losing Saquon Barkley, we rushed for more yards per carry, we led the B1G in passing the last 2 years and we weren’t able to consistently throw the ball. We had too many drops. That showed up again today,” Franklin said. “To me, that’s the biggest issue with our offense this year. That showed up in this game, as well.”
But wait. There’s more.
“Obviously I want to talk about Kentucky,” he said. “We can go back and talk about a lot of plays throughout the season, but to me overall, that was the issue with our offense. We weren’t consistent enough in the passing game.”
McSorley, including that current drive, had completed 8 of his last 12 passes for 125 yards and 2 touchdowns. It’s true that the Lions haven’t been the passing juggernaut that they’ve been in years past. It’s also true that Penn State had its all-time leading passer in a groove in the fourth quarter, and even on his hobbled foot, he had still been able to scramble and pick up yards when pressured.
Franklin should have said, “you know what. That’s on me. Once again, I got in my own head and I completely botched the feel of that game. I’ll own that.”
Instead, he decided to once again try to justify a bad call in a big spot. I sense a trend here.
McSorley earned his swan song after what’s been an up and down season. He’ll go down as one of the great quarterbacks in B1G history as one of 3 players in conference history to ever account for 100-plus touchdowns. Now, Franklin will have to move on without the face of his program, AKA the quarterback who led Penn State back to national relevance.
Franklin said after Tuesday’s loss that McSorley’s legacy will be that “he’ll be remembered for a long time not only by the fanbase but by the people in the locker room.” Bowers, who caught McSorley’s first touchdown pass of the day, said “he had no words” to describe how special the Lions quarterback was.
As McSorley closed the book on his legacy, he limped through the postgame tunnel for the final time as a Penn State player. With his head down, quarterback Michael Shuster got McSorley to turn around and give him a hug. That followed with hugs from the likes of tight end Pat Freiermuth, a Penn State staffer, receivers K.J. Hamler and Juwan Johnson and finally, one from Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour.
They’ll miss McSorley. We’ll all miss McSorley. There were few players in America that one would’ve rather given the ball to in crunch time than McSorley.
If only Franklin felt that way.