STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley was standing with his teammates Saturday waiting for officials to review a first-quarter play involving him that would be ruled a sack, when the vast majority of the Beaver Stadium crowd of 97,418 erupted into cheers.
"I really didn't know what was going on," McSorley said. "I had to go ask Coach [James Franklin] what everyone was cheering about. I thought they were reviewing a play or something like that. So I really had no idea. Then [Franklin] just told me what happened" - involving the Ohio State-Michigan game - "and I said, 'Oh, OK.' "
Once the second half arrived, McSorley made sure that Penn State finished the deal. The redshirt sophomore threw three long touchdown passes in the third quarter that lifted the No. 7 Nittany Lions to a 45-12 pounding of Michigan State and into next week's Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.
Combined with No. 2 Ohio State's 30-27 double-overtime victory over Michigan, the Lions (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten), who won their eighth consecutive game, earned the right to represent the East against No. 6 Wisconsin next Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Buckeyes also finished 8-1 in the conference, but Penn State won the tiebreaker thanks to its 24-21 win over them on Oct. 22.
Wisconsin clinched the West on Friday after Nebraska lost to Iowa, and finished its season at 10-2 following a 31-17 win over Minnesota.
An ecstatic Franklin said he thought his players tuned out the Ohio State game pretty well. He recounted McSorley's walking up to him and asking what all the cheering was about.
"He was going to find out sometime, so I just told him that I assumed Ohio State had won," he said. "He didn't bat an eye and we kind of went on from there. I don't think we were necessarily rooting for one team . . . but we sure did want another team to lose, might be the best way to describe that."
The Nittany Lions were outgained in the opening half and trailed, 12-10, against the Spartans (3-9, 1-8), who drove into the red zone on their first four possessions but settled for field goals by Michael Geiger each time.
In the second half, McSorley aired things out. On the Nittany Lions' first three possessions, he threw touchdown passes of 34 yards to wide receiver Chris Godwin, 45 yards to tight end Mike Gesicki, and 59 yards to Godwin. In the quarter, he completed all six of his passes for 157 yards and the three scores.
"Trace has been a great quarterback for us all season long, a great leader for us," said Gesicki, who made a tremendous leaping catch to bring the ball down against two defenders on the goal line. "It's just him making a play for himself and then allowing another guy to make another play. So I'm appreciative of him giving me a chance and kind of trusting me to put it up and letting me go get it."
McSorley finished 17 of 23 for a career-high 376 yards. He added a fourth touchdown pass, 40 yards to backup running back Andre Robinson, in the fourth quarter. Robinson also scored on a 14-yard run in the same period.
Saquon Barkley was bottled up by Michigan State's defense, rushing for a career-low 14 yards on 12 carries, including a 1-yard touchdown leap over the line. He was shaken up and left the game late in the third quarter.
When asked about his injury or his status, Franklin said, "I'm not going to say anything about Saquon. He'll have a great week and prepare this week based on what I know."
The Spartans lost starting quarterback Damion Terry in the second quarter when he took a hit on a run and looked a little woozy as he left the field. They outgained Penn State, 256-125, in the first half but had only 87 yards in the second half, to 338 for the Lions.
Penn State ended senior day the way it wanted, and there will be more to its season.
"You can't really write a better story than this," said linebacker Brandon Bell, who was in on 18 tackles. "But there's still more to be written, so we'll see."