ORLANDO -- It all began for Trace McSorley on Jan. 2, 2016, when he first took the reins as Penn State’s quarterback in relief of injured starter Christian Hackenberg in the second quarter of the Nittany Lions’ Gator Bowl game against Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla.
A redshirt freshman whose only game action up to that point had been some mop-up duty, McSorley impressed with his competitiveness and his confidence. He threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes that weren’t enough in the 24-17 loss, but the Lions coaches and players knew they had a special quarterback for the long haul.
Almost three years to the day later, it ends some 140 miles south of where it started.
McSorley will play his final game Tuesday in a Penn State uniform, the Citrus Bowl matchup against Kentucky at Camping World Stadium. It will mark his 40th consecutive start after having led the Nittany Lions to a 31-8 record in the previous 39, including a Big Ten championship and two New Year’s Six bowls.
“It’s hard for me to say that I would have thought that,” McSorley said Saturday of his streak of starts. “Obviously, I imagined having success and that was a goal, but for it to have been planned out and played out like this, I probably wouldn’t say that.
“For me, it was always my goal to come in and be one of the best quarterbacks in Penn State history. That’s something that I set a goal personally when I got to school. My first real game was actually in Florida and it’s come full circle. My last one is going to be in the state of Florida.”
For those who have been with McSorley for most or all of his five years in the program, it’s been more than just the on-field performance and the 16 school records that he takes into Tuesday’s game. It has been the leadership, the competitiveness, the consistency and the work ethic that leaves a legacy that few quarterbacks in Penn State history have established.
“Trace McSorley is what you want in all of your players. You love him because he is the same guy every single day. The guy has not had a bad day in five years. He has not had a day where he has had an issue academically, an issue with a girlfriend or an issue with family that he has brought into the Lasch Building. He is the same guy from the day he stepped on campus during the recruiting process to now. He is going to be a great teammate, always a class act, unbelievable with the community, compete like hell on Saturday, and he’s going to prepare like nobody else. I think he is a great model for all of our young players and I think he is a great model for college football in general, just about how you go about your business.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin
Perhaps the best example of McSorley’s leadership came early in his first year as the starter. The Nittany Lions slipped to 2-2 following a 49-10 pounding at Michigan, dropping them to 16-14 in Franklin’s career and making fans wonder if the head coach was getting the right players and coaching them properly.
“I’m embarrassed,” McSorley said after the game. “I’m sorry to all our fans how we came out and played. It wasn’t the Penn State that we want to be, it’s not the Penn State that we need to be, and the Penn State that we are. That wasn’t us out there today. It hurts, but we’ll get in the film room tomorrow, start correcting the mistakes, learn from it, move on and get ready to bounce back next week.”
The Lions won the next nine games and the Big Ten championship before a last-second loss to Southern California in a wildly entertaining Rose Bowl. They followed that 11-3 season by going 11-2 and winning the Fiesta Bowl, and a victory over Kentucky will give them three consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins for the first time since beginning Big Ten competition in 1993.
“My first memory of Trace is when he came to my house before we left [for freshman year at Penn State] in the summer, because he was visiting family in California. I just remember we worked out together that day and I was like, ‘Wow,’ because I was running routes for him, and I just remembered, ‘This dude can really throw the ball.’ You could just tell how humble he is and how hard he works. That’s a testament to Trace because he waited his time and he took over and he’s breaking school records. It’s all deserved for Trace.” -- Linebacker and roommate Koa Farmer
McSorley and Farmer were part of the 2014 recruiting class assembled by Franklin and previous head coach Bill O’Brien while the program was trying to rebuild following NCAA sanctions that limited it to 65 scholarships, 20 below the maximum. Seven of those recruits will make their final appearances Tuesday.
McSorley and some of the fifth-year seniors took a victory lap around the field at Beaver Stadium after their last home game, a Nov. 24 win over Maryland.
“We were just doing it with those guys that we all came in with, a group of guys that fought hard every single day and worked their butts off to bring this program back and bring it to the spot where we’d be competing for top championships and being a top-level contender every year,” McSorley said.
“His talent [is something] which I think people overlook at lot of times. Everyone always talks about his intangibles and all those sort of things, which are awesome. His ability to escape and his ability to make plays, along with arm talent, are things that I’m not going to ever be able to coach again. So I’m excited about the legacy he’s left in the quarterback room and on the offense in general at Penn State.” -- offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne
Rahne originally recruited McSorley when he was on Franklin’s staff at Vanderbilt as McSorley was leading his team at Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, Va., to four state championship games, winning three. Other schools looked at McSorley and thought “defensive back,” but Franklin and Rahne felt he was a quarterback all along, which is why he followed them to Penn State when Franklin took the job there in January 2014.
It’s fair to say they were correct in their assessment after 11,275 yards of total offense and 104 touchdowns passing and rushing, among other records.
Now after three successful collegiate seasons, McSorley moves on to what he hopes is a shot at the NFL. The usual NFL stance claims his “measurables” of 6 feet tall and 201 pounds aren’t good -- the WalterFootball.com draft web site says McSorley would be “rated higher if not so vastly undersized.”
However, Franklin, who spent the 2005 season on the Green Bay Packers coaching staff, said he feels that once NFL teams get to sit down with McSorley and watch him work out, they’ll be sold.
“There were doubts in high school, there were doubts in college, there will be doubts in the NFL,” Franklin said. “It’s just going to continue. I think he’s going to be one of those guys that constantly overcomes some of the false narrative that’s out there.
“I’ve spent time in that league. I’ve watched guys in that league. I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind that he can play at the next level and play well.”
Before that, McSorley will play one final game for Penn State, receive a rousing send-off from the white-clad fans, and leave lasting memories.
“It’s just been a great ride,” he said. “I’m extremely grateful and extremely thankful for the opportunity the coaches gave me to even come to a school like Penn State, and an opportunity to play and for putting me in good situations to be able to be successful.
“And the same thing, my teammates have been incredible all the way through. So I’m just extremely thankful for the opportunity that I had here and I’m looking forward to finishing out strong.”
Penn State records set by Trace McSorley
Career passing yards – 9,653
Season passing yards – 3,614 (2016)
Career pass completions – 703
Season pass completions – 284 (2017)
Career touchdown passes – 75
Season touchdown passes – 29 (2016)
Career total offense – 11,275 yards
Season total offense – 4,061 yards (2017)
Game total offense – 461 (2018, vs. Ohio State)
Career touchdowns responsible for – 104
Career rushing touchdowns, quarterback – 29