Georgia holds off late Penn State comeback in TaxSlayer Bowl
Final: Georgia 24, Penn State 17
Key play: Sony Michel 21-yard touchdown run in third quarter
I know, I know. Penn State was one Hail Mary away from pulling off an epic comeback. But the Lions were in need of such a big comeback because of Michel’s third-quarter score. That made the game 24-3, and with the way the Penn State offense looked, it appeared to be a dagger at the time. Georgia had won 48 of its last 49 games in which it led by 21 points. For a freshman backup quarterback to overcome that deficit in the fourth quarter — with that streak in mind — it would’ve been a miracle. But it almost happened.
Telling stat: Carl Nassib held without a tackle
The consensus All-American defensive end had a sack in every game that he started and finished in 2015. But coming off two injuries, he wasn’t able to get to Greyson Lambert and be the difference-maker the Lions were used to having. Austin Johnson stepped up big, especially late, and Anthony Zettel finished his storied career with a sack. But Penn State’s defensive line needed a game-changing play early to force a third-and-long when Georgia got rolling in the middle of the game. Without Nassib looking like his All-American self, the Bulldogs controlled the line of scrimmage and put Penn State on its heels for too much of the game.
-Hackenberg leaves with shoulder injury
Hackenberg’s day — and possibly Penn State career — came to an end earlier than he would’ve liked. The Lions signal-caller was scrambling and he came down awkwardly on his throwing shoulder. In fitting fashion, Hackenberg tried to stay in the game. He actually completed three of his next four passes for 75 yards, but he was in noticeable pain. Hackenberg was ultimately ruled out for the game, and he spent the second half with a headset trying to coach up freshman Trace McSorley. It remains to be seen whether or not that was the end of Hackenberg’s career. At this point, it would be surprising to see the former B1G freshman of the year return for his senior year. If he does leave, he’ll have one of the more complicated legacies in recent memory.
–McSorely played a heck of a fourth quarter
We don’t know if McSorley will be the guy next year, but he certainly impressed after taking over for Hackenberg. After a slow start, the redshirt freshman settled in nicely. Down 24-3 in the fourth quarter, he stepped up and got Penn State back into the game. He converted on fourth down by dropping a perfect ball to Geno Lewis to give the Lions their first score of the game. Two drives later, McSorely slipped a pass through three Georgia defenders to DaeSean Hamilton to bring Penn State within a touchdown. McSorely made some huge throws in big spots in the fourth quarter and, perhaps above all else, he gave life to Penn State when it appeared dead in the water. We might’ve gotten a glimpse of the future.
What it means: Change in 2016
You can bet James Franklin can’t wait to put 2015 in the rearview mirror. I already talked about the potential change at quarterback, but the entire dynamic of the Lions could shift in 2016. That was the last time we saw one of the nation’s best defensive lines take the field together. Penn State relied on Johnson, Nassib and Zettel a ton in 2015, but next year the Lions could get back relying its linebacking core to do the dirty work. Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell will both return for a defense that will have plenty of new faces. Speaking of new faces, new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is going to implement a run-first offense that will feature Saquon Barkley and a spread-option attack. We saw a little of that with McSorley on Saturday, and given the success he had, we could see more of that in 2016. This, of course, would only happen if Hackenberg declares for the NFL draft. Stay tuned for that decision.