STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – It was a chilly and rainy Saturday at Beaver Stadium, but nothing chilled the crowd as much as watching Trace McSorley, Penn State's quarterback and leader, remain on the ground clutching his knee after a sack by two Iowa defenders.
The fifth-year senior needed assistance walking to the sideline early in the second quarter, and a three-play possession later in the period provided proof that he probably wouldn't be able to continue.
After halftime, however McSorley not only returned to the game but raced 51 yards for a touchdown on his fourth play, giving the 17th-ranked Nittany Lions the lead for good in a 30-24 Big Ten victory over the No. 18 Hawkeyes that made Penn State bowl eligible.
The game was as wild and wacky as they come. Two poor plays by the punt team of the Nittany Lions (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) resulted in safeties for Iowa (6-2, 3-2). The Hawkeyes' two touchdowns came on a fake field goal and a pick-six. Penn State freshman Jake Pinegar, an Iowa native, kicked the three longest field goals – 45, 49 and 44 yards – of his college career.
The post-game conversation, however, was mostly about McSorley, whose workload over the previous four games was starting to concern head coach James Franklin, though it turned out to be a sack by Iowa's Anthony Nelson and Chauncey Golston — not a run between the tackles — that knocked him out.
"I really wasn't sure what happened," McSorley said. "I kind of knew it hurt, and I was kind of letting the doctors figure it out from there. I was just trying to stay as calm as possible so they could evaluate it.
"They just kept saying, 'Keep it loose.' That was the main thing. So I stayed on the bike [on the sideline and in the locker room] as much as possible. I just had to get comfortable running and cutting. That was one of the things they kept harping on — do as much of that as I could in the spare time that I had. Once I went on the field, I was able to test it in real game action, and it felt fine, and I was good."
Franklin said McSorley had "earned the right to tell us if he thinks he can go back out on the field.
"I asked Trace and said that I need the whole package," the coach said. "I can't just have a pro-style quarterback sitting in the pocket. I have to have more than that. We watched Trace run down the sideline and do a zigzag, and he looked pretty good."
McSorley sat out for 11 plays, and backup Tommy Stevens capitalized on a 44-yard interception return by John Reid to score on a 3-yard run, part of a first half that ended 17-17.
McSorley's touchdown run — on which he went up the middle, cut to the left, and followed receiver DeAndre Thompkins' block to the end zone — and Pinegar's second field goal, a 49-yarder, gave Penn State a 27-17 lead entering the fourth quarter.
The final 15 minutes were full of drama. The usually reliable McSorley could not come together with Miles Sanders on a handoff from the Iowa 9, and the Hawkeyes recovered the fumble. On the Lions' next drive, McSorley's pass was intercepted by Geno Stone, who ran it back 24 yards for the score.
Pinegar's 44-yard field goal got the lead up to six with 8 minutes, 24 seconds to play. The Hawkeyes took possession and drove to a first-and-goal at the Nittany Lions 3, but Nate Stanley, who completed just 18 of 49 passes, had his pass intercepted by Nick Scott.
"I think they were trying to check the play or something like that," Scott said. "I felt like I was in good position on him regardless of what he was trying to do. I got my eyes back, saw the ball and made the play."
Iowa had one last possession that started from its own 23 with 1:23 left and no timeouts. The Hawkeyes got to the Penn State 44, bu,t on the last play, Stanley was hit by defensive end Shareef Miller and lateraled to tackle Tristan Wirfs, who rumbled to the 29 before getting gang-tackled.
"Our defense played really fantastic the entire time," McSorley said. "They did a really good job keeping [Iowa] out of the end zone. I think [it's about] our all-around team effort, everyone coming together and just being able to finish out these games, and be 1-0 this week."