PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley has a knack for candor when it comes to assessing his own play, and it was clear Saturday that he wasn't impressed with his play against lowly Rutgers.
"By no means was this my best performance," the fifth-year senior and team leader said.
But there's a reason McSorley is now the all-time leader for most wins by a Penn State starting quarterback. He picked up No. 30 against the Scarlet Knights, throwing for two touchdowns to lift the lethargic, 16th-ranked Nittany Lions to a 20-7 victory before a crowd of 44,840 at HighPoint.com Stadium.
It might not have been worthy of many style points, but the win for the Nittany Lions (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten) kept alive their hopes for a possible New Year's Six bowl bid.
McSorley capitalized on two of the three turnovers forced by the Lions (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten), passing for TDs of 6 and 18 yards to freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth. The first scoring pass marked the 100th touchdown for which McSorley was responsible – 73 passes and 27 runs.
"It's an accomplishment I'll be able to look back [on] when I'm done," McSorley said. "It's a lot on my teammates. I'm not able to do any of that without them. A lot of those are passing touchdowns, so there's always someone catching it. Somebody's always got to do their job; the offensive line's got to be protecting. That's a team thing in my eyes."
The Lions appeared flat for much of the game, perhaps experiencing a letdown after last week's win over Wisconsin. Though they held Rutgers (1-10, 0-8) to 234 total yards, the Scarlet Knights rushed for 188, with Archbishop Wood graduate Raheem Blackshear picking up 102 on 22 carries and scoring his team's only touchdown from 2 yards out.
Head coach James Franklin, however, had a different opinion about flat play.
"I don't know if I necessarily saw that," he said. "We watched these guys on tape. We have a lot of respect for them and for how hard they play. We didn't feel like this was going to be an easy game for us. When they played Northwestern, who is playing in the Big Ten championship game, it was [an] 18-15 [Rutgers loss]. So, I didn't really feel that."
Through its first five possessions, Penn State led by only 3-0, on the first of two short field goals by Jake Pinegar. McSorley was 3 of 13 for 20 yards.
But safety Garrett Taylor's interception and return to the Rutgers 28 seemed to give the quarterback a jolt.
He hit Freiermuth for 23 yards to the 5, then lofted a 6-yard pass to the tight end for the touchdown. The Nittany Lions regained possession at their own 20 with 1 minute, 5 seconds left in the half and one timeout, and McSorley fired completions of 26 yards to K.J. Hamler and 35 yards to Jahan Dotson to reach the 1. Pinegar kicked a 19-yard field goal to make it 13-0 at the half.
McSorley said he didn't think "there was one particular pass" that got him back in rhythm.
"Probably it was the drive before, where we were able to punch it in," he said. "Just being able to see a couple passes get completed helps you to settle down."
McSorley's 19-yard scoring pass to Freiermuth early in the fourth quarter was set up by defensive end Daniel Joseph's fumble recovery at the Rutgers 46. He finished 17 of 37 for 183 yards. The Lions also rushed for 139 yards, with Miles Sanders picking up 88 in a career-high 27 carries.
The Penn State defense limited quarterbacks Artur Sitkowski and Gio Rescigno to 5 completions in 15 attempts for 46 yards. The Lions mounted a successful goal-line stand in the third quarter with the help of Rescigno, who dropped an easy touchdown catch after a perfectly executed "Philly Special" by the Scarlet Knights.
"Luckily, he dropped it," defensive end Shareef Miller said. "I don't know how he dropped it, but I'm glad he did."
It was another example of the level of play in the game, but Penn State will take the win and move on to its regular-season finale – McSorley's last game at Beaver Stadium. He'll face a tougher test, though: a Maryland team that pushed Ohio State to the brink on Saturday before losing in overtime, 52-51.