- Heisman candidate heroics. A heart-stopping upset bid. Suffocating student sections. The closest we came to a stunning upset in Week 1 served as a microcosm of the many ways the college game has the pro game beat.
This story appears in the Sept. 10, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Only in college football can an entire season hang in the balance before its first Sunday sunrise. Last Saturday, 58 minutes and 54 seconds into the first game of the season, the masses in Happy Valley prayed that a potential dream year would see a second day. Senior quarterback Trace McSorley awaited the snap with 66 seconds remaining in what should have been a Penn State waltz over Appalachian State. Instead, the Nittany Lions trailed by seven and faced a fourth-and-two on the Mountaineers’ 40-yard line. A season that was supposed to lead to a Big Ten title and a run at the College Football Playoff was dangerously close to becoming a decadeslong punch line.
It had been 11 years since Appalachian State had shocked Michigan in Ann Arbor and Mountaineers radio color analyst Steve Brown screamed “YARD SALE AT THE BIG HOUSE!” at the conclusion of the 34–32 stunner. Now, with Appalachian State up 38–31, the signature upset of a new college football season was already in the making. No one recalls that the 2007 Wolverines won nine games, went 6–2 in Big Ten play and creamed a team led by that season’s Heisman Trophy winner in a bowl game (Tim Tebow’s Florida Gators). We remember that that Michigan team was on the losing end of one of the great upsets in modern college football history. Though Appalachian State has moved from the FCS (63 scholarships) to the FBS (the same subdivision as Michigan and Penn State, with a full complement of 85 scholarships) and has become one of the best programs in the Sun Belt Conference, a loss to the Mountaineers would crush Penn State’s College Football Playoff aspirations and deal a serious blow to the Big Ten’s national cachet.
Not that any of that was going through the mind of the 6-foot, 201-pound quarterback behind center as he surveyed the Appalachian State defense on that fourth down. Remember that kid in math class who seemed to know how the numbers fit before the teacher even asked the questions? “Things you have to study hours for, they just get it,” Penn State head coach James Franklin says. “Trace is like that with football.” McSorley made his calculations. He considered Mountaineers linebacker Anthony Flory and safety Josh Thomas bailing into the defensive backfield a split second before the snap. What had originally looked like a kitchen-sink blitz now looked like a conventional four-man rush. Then, as the snap sailed toward him, McSorley noticed linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither dropping into coverage instead of rushing from the edge to McSorley’s right. Penn State coordinator Ricky Rahne had called a play designed to take advantage of a blitz, which would have forced the Mountaineers’ defensive backs to cover Penn State’s receivers one-on-one. Instead—thanks to Penn State’s decision to keep its H-back and tailback in for maximum protection—Appalachian State got to play eight-on-three in zone coverage.
Fortunately, Penn State had practiced this. On the outside to McSorley’s left, junior receiver Brandon Polk noticed cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles playing 10 yards off the line of scrimmage and bailing fast. If he could settle into a soft spot in the zone, McSorley could find him before cornerback Clifton Duck, assigned to that area of the field, noticed. Polk didn’t need to tell McSorley anything. After two years together at Briar Woods High in Ashburn, Va., and three more years together at Penn State, the pair has a baked-in chemistry. McSorley caught the snap, turned to his left and fired to Polk just before Duck arrived.
First down. The Nittany Lions remained alive. Three plays later, Appalachian State did blitz. With two defenders careering toward him, McSorley fired over the middle to KJ Hamler, who took advantage of one-on-one coverage and snagged a 15-yarder that set off another of McSorley’s trademark home-run-swing touchdown celebrations. The extra point—combined with a missed 56-yard field goal attempt by Appalachian State 27 seconds later—forced overtime. The stage was set for a final act that would showcase why the college game is the best brand of football: an extra period in front of 105,232 fans in a storied setting, the possibility of a titanic upset, a Heisman candidate rising to the occasion with everything on the line—all on the very first day of September.
Moments like this are nothing new for Trace McSorley. He led Briar Woods to four consecutive state title games, winning the first three. As Penn State’s starter he led the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten title in 2016 and an 11–2 record and a Fiesta Bowl win over Washington in 2017. This year he leads a Penn State offense that was dynamic last season, but he no longer has tailback Saquon Barkley (the No. 2 pick in April’s NFL draft) or ’17 leading receiver DaeSean Hamilton or red zone magician Mike Gesicki. Still, he has the faith of everyone in State College. They saw him find a way against Minnesota in ’16, when McSorley used his arm and his legs to force an overtime that made the Lions’ first Big Ten title in eight years possible. They saw it last September at Iowa, when McSorley threaded a ball through three defenders for a game-winning touchdown in a 21–19 victory as time expired. “When you’ve got a quarterback who has won so many big games like he has,” Franklin says, “it’s hard not to be confident.”
Franklin and Rahne recruited McSorley when the coaches were together at Vanderbilt. They had to tell then defensive coordinator Bob Shoop that he wasn’t allowed to pitch McSorley on playing safety. (Other schools did, though.) Before McSorley could sign with the Commodores, Franklin was hired by Penn State to replace Bill O’Brien. McSorley decided to go north instead of south and signed with the Nittany Lions. Given the way Franklin and his staff have recruited behind McSorley, the QB could wind up leading Penn State into a new golden age.
To do so he’ll have to prove he is the through line for Penn State’s offensive success. He is now 23–5 as Penn State’s starter, but a Nittany Lion’s share of the credit has gone to Barkley and to Joe Moorhead, the former offensive coordinator who left in December after two seasons to become Mississippi State’s head coach. Rahne, who was promoted from tight ends coach to coordinator after Moorhead’s departure, believes McSorley knows the offense as well as anyone on the coaching staff. And McSorley isn’t shy about voicing his opinion. “He’s going to tell me what he really thinks,” Rahne says. “The greatest thing about him is that he’s very respectful, but he’s not a yes man. I’m not looking for those in any part of my life, and I certainly don’t need it from my starting quarterback.”
Still, McSorley will need more playmaking help. And as the season goes along and the Nittany Lions face the Big Ten gantlet, McSorley may get it from a most unlikely source—his backup. Fourth-year junior Tommy Stevens didn’t play against Appalachian State because of a foot injury, which may be part of the reason Penn State started slowly against the Mountaineers. Stevens is slated to take over for McSorley next year, but in another only-in-college-football scenario the coaching staff expects the 6'5", 240-pound Stevens to play a major role in the offense this season as a sort of Swiss Army Knife, playing a position Rahne and Franklin call “Lion.” The chance to play this position is one of the ways Penn State coaches persuaded Stevens—who could have graduated in the spring, transferred to another school and started at quarterback for two seasons—to return to Penn State after he looked at other options.
The Nittany Lions have been building this package since 2016. In the fourth quarter of their 41–14 win against Iowa that season, Stevens lined up in the slot to McSorley’s right. Stevens motioned to the left and arrived next to McSorley just as the snap arrived. McSorley handed the ball to Stevens for a jet sweep, and Stevens bulled through three tacklers for a 13-yard touchdown run. The following season Moorhead, Franklin and Rahne expanded the package. Stevens lined up as an H-back. He lined up as a receiver. He lined up as a tailback. McSorley handed him the ball. McSorley threw him the ball. On occasion, McSorely gave Stevens the ball and Stevens threw it. When games got out of hand, Stevens finally got to line up at quarterback.
Such an arrangement probably couldn’t happen in today’s NFL. Yes, Kordell Stewart played the “slash” position for the Steelers in the 1990s, but quarterback salaries weren’t what they are now. What Penn State is doing would be akin to the 2017 Chiefs cycling quarterback Patrick Mahomes through the other skill positions while Alex Smith remained at quarterback. Imagine how viciously coach Andy Reid would have been ripped on talk radio and by his team’s own executives. You want to do what with our quarterback of the future?
Penn State coaches would love for opposing Big Ten defensive coordinators to have to worry about Stevens in all these roles. Meanwhile, McSorley wants Stevens to try to win the starting quarterback job every day—pushing McSorley, which in turn pushes the entire team to work harder. “The rest of our team gets a chance to be able to see that and see that dynamic between the two of us,” says McSorley, who threw for 3,570 yards and 28 touchdowns in ’17. “It definitely helps to push the competitiveness of everybody else.” That relationship has filtered to the rest of the team, creating the kind of cutthroat competition for starting jobs at practice that has made Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State perennial national title contenders. Combine the standard set by McSorley and Stevens with another recruiting class or two, and Penn State is poised to rejoin college football’s elite echelon. Or maybe that could happen sooner. Perhaps this season?
A loss to a Sun Belt team in the opener would have seriously damaged that plan. After the Nittany Lions forced overtime, McSorley stood at midfield with the rest of the captains for the overtime coin toss. The Mountaineers called tails. The coin landed tails up. In the NFL, the team that wins the toss wants the ball. In college, where both teams are guaranteed a crack at scoring, the smart play is to choose to play defense first. Appalachian State predictably didn’t want the ball to start. But McSorley knew the Nittany Lions had gotten the ultimate consolation prize: They got to choose which end of the field would host the first overtime series. As soon as the referee turned to the Penn State captains, McSorley, who’d already passed for 230 yards and a touchdown and run for 53 yards and another two TDs, began pointing to the south end zone—toward the loudest, most intense, most suffocating student section in America.
If the Nittany Lions were going to save their season, their classmates were going to help. Those fans kept the noise to a minimum as Penn State set up at the Appalachian State 25-yard line. They roared four plays later when tailback Miles Sanders—who carried on every play of Penn State’s overtime period—burst through the middle of the line for a four-yard touchdown run to put the Lions up 45–38.
Now Appalachian State had the ball. When quarterback Zac Thomas looked up, he saw a cauldron of pom-pom shaking, hormone-raging students who wouldn’t be worried about homework for at least another 24 hours. On the Penn State sideline, Franklin and McSorley each lifted both arms, begging the kids for more noise as “Welcome to the Jungle” pumped from the stadium speakers. In the middle of the student section, just above the tunnel from which Penn State takes the field, some students wear navy shirts and some wear white shirts so that the entire bloc forms a white “S.” Usually, it stands for State. At that moment on Saturday, it stood for stop. “They need to score a touchdown in our student section? That’s a tall task for anyone,” McSorley said later that night. “Our student section gives us a ton of energy and helps us on the field probably more than they realize.”
After a first down the Mountaineers had a first-and-10 at the 15. Thomas faked a handoff, dropped back and fired. In the end zone, receiver Corey Sutton leaped. Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye leaped even higher and snared the ball for an interception. The student section erupted as a gang of Nittany Lions ran to Oruwariye to celebrate. Near midfield, McSorley shook hands with Mountaineers players as DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” cascaded over the stadium.
Two years ago, after Penn State survived in overtime against Minnesota on a day when a potential upset became a building block for a championship, a camera caught Franklin blowing out a massive exhale as he ran into the locker room. Saturday, more than 100,000 people simultaneously filled the central Pennsylvania air with carbon dioxide. They had been scared, but they had also been thrilled.
The best part was that this is only the beginning. They get to do it all again at least 11 more times.