INDIANAPOLIS — Can’t it just be a great football game, please? Can’t it just be a game in which a quarterback with a name out of the losing side at the OK Corral, Trace McSorley, brought Penn State all the way back from down 28–7 in the first half against a Wisconsin team with a meat-grinder of an offense, and who did so by continually dialing up a play that can fairly be described as, “I’ll chuck it up there and one of you dudes jump over one of their dudes and catch it”? Can’t it just be Penn State beating the Badgers, 38–31, in what amounted to the bronze medal game of the Big Logo Conference, probably winning the Nittany Lions a bid to the Rose Bowl into the bargain? It can just be that and, for our purposes, that’s all it’s going to be.
(After all, a Rose Bowl bid used to be one of the biggest deals of all, before college football turned itself into a battle of the brands. In fact, in 1922, it was the first bowl game to which the Nittany Lions were invited. This was on the strength of their having brawled 6-4-1 through a schedule that included wins over St. Bonaventure, William and Mary, Lebanon Valley, Gettysburg, and Middlebury. It was that last win that got Penn State its bid, in the middle of October. The Nittanies responded by losing or tying five of their last six games. They lost the Rose Bowl, too, 14–6 to USC. Life was simpler back then. Fewer computers, fewer men with blazers screwing things up. Hell, invite the teams before Halloween and then let’s all get some lunch.)
For reasons too familiar to elaborate here, Penn State and its football team have spent the last five years under a deep, dark cloud of its own manufacture. Jerry Sandusky was a sexual predator and, as institutions, Penn State and Penn State football enabled him in his crimes. That is the verdict of history and it is not disputable, despite the best efforts of one of America’s most fervent fan bases to induce historical amnesia and declare itself, with consummate hubris, the real victim in the situation.
And it never really goes away. Over the past two months, Mike McQueary, the former graduate assistant coach who blew the whistle on Sandusky, was awarded $12 million dollars in civil suits in which McQueary was granted whistleblower status by a judge, and in which he charged the university with defaming him and, in doing so, pretty much wrecking his life. McQueary told Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports that he couldn’t even get hired for a job working the cash register at a local pharmacy because he’d been marked lousy for coming forward with what he saw and what he knew. If you want to know if it ever goes away, ask the real victims of what Penn State allowed to happen. They will tell you the same thing.
So, nothing here about “healing.” Until all the victims heal, I don’t care if the institution does. There will be nothing here about “overcoming adversity” or “getting beyond the tragedy.” Until the victims do either one, I don’t care if the institution does. There was nothing here but a helluva football game from two teams just out of the brightest spotlight at the right time of the year. That’s enough for the end of a long night. That’s enough for now.
Things began to get away from Wisconsin with 58 seconds left in the first half. Trailing by 21 points and, apparently, just trying to get close enough to kick a field goal and get his team into the locker room alive, McSorley found wideout Saeed Blacknall on a simple out pattern to the left sideline. However, Wisconsin’s Lubern Figaro tried to jump the route and came up empty. That left Blacknall a virtual autobahn all the way into the end zone, and Penn State made it to the break trailing by only two touchdowns. Somewhere between Figaro’s gamble and the start of the second half, Wisconsin’s momentum broke into a thousand pieces.
“We didn’t do enough to make McSorley uncomfortable,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “They made some plays down the field and, offensively, there were a couple of possessions where we didn’t get points out of them.”
As it happens, McSorley was just getting warmed up. A junior, and now the all-time single-season passing leader at Penn State, McSorley originally decided he would play for James Franklin at Vanderbilt. When Franklin took the Penn State job, McSorley went back into the recruiting spin cycle for a bit and decided to follow Franklin to Happy Valley.
(And before everyone leaps onto Twitter, yes, I know McSorley’s high school coach back in Virginia is named Charlie Pierce, but that has nothing to do with how well I thought he played last night. Honest.)
“Trace,” Franklin said, “has been dynamic all year long. Obviously, he made plays tonight. The wideouts made unbelievable plays for him and the tight ends made unbelievable plays for him. His mobility helped the O-line. We felt really good about our wide receiver to DB matchups and tight end to DB matchups, but we just needed to strain a little longer in protection and give us some time.”
“I was just trying to take what the defense was giving me,” McSorley said, after being named the game’s most outstanding player. “Not trying to force anything. Coach [Joe] Moorhead told me to just trust the system and trust the game plan. The receivers came to me and said just trust us. They were really feeling confident and happy with what they were doing.”
McSorley ended up hitting on 22 of 31 passes for 384 yards with four touchdowns, but the cold stats don’t come close to describing the connection he had with his receivers, which bordered on the telepathic, if not the miraculous. It began in the second quarter when he threw one up for grabs in the front right corner of the end zone. Tight end Mike Gesicki went up over Figaro, who later would try to jump Blacknall’s route and miss and who did not have a good time in Indianapolis at all, and Gesicki came tumbling down with the ball. That was Penn State’s first touchdown.
Then came Figaro’s ill-timed gamble. On the Nittany Lions’ first play of the second half, following a missed Wisconsin field goal, McSorley threw what appeared to be something out of the Macy’s parade downfield and, somehow, he found Blacknall, wandering amidst the Badgers defensive backs, all of whom seemed to be listening to music nobody else could hear. The ball fell into Blacknall’s arms, and he scored to get Penn State to within a touchdown at 28–21.
There were a few more of these, too, particularly from DaeSean Hamilton who, on the drive that resulted in what would be the game-winning touchdown, saved the drive. Hamilton made one ludicrous catch over a defender along the sidelines and then caught a 25-yarder from McSorley while being held by Badgers cornerback Derrick Tindal. I’m sure these plays were drawn up in detail by the Penn State staff but, out on the field, they looked very much like things out of a Madden game that had been gnawed at by squirrels.
“When the ball is up in the air, coach Moorhead said in the offensive meeting last night, it's not a 50/50 ball, it's a 100/0 ball,” Gesicki said. “When that ball is in the air, it's our ball. We have to make a play on it.”
The game ended, after Penn State had stuffed Wisconsin on a fourth-and-one at its own 24-yard line, with McSorley running out the final seconds of the game and looking for a place to fall down so he could get up a champion. “Those last three seconds,” McSorley said, “felt like they took forever.”
And that is the way it is for this football program and for the institution it represents. You can talk about moving forward all you want, but there is a piece of its history that will remain frozen like dark ice in its heart for much longer than the five football seasons that have passed since it all came apart. To his enormous credit, James Franklin did not talk in the language by which sports becomes a therapeutic emotional placebo. His team won a championship. That was enough for a night grown late. That was enough for now.