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On This Day: Trace McSorley Named Penn State’s Starting Quarterback

On this day in 2016, James Franklin announced that Trace McSorley won the team’s starting quarterback competition.

An untested redshirt sophomore at the time, No. 9 beat out Tommy Stevens to win the starting job, left vacant when Christian Hackenberg was selected in the NFL Draft by the New York Jets a few months prior.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but the numbers certainly back up Franklin’s decision: Since August 24, 2016, Penn State has added a Big Ten championship to its trophy case, won 22 of 27 games, and scored an average of just fewer than 40 points per game —  not to mention the fact that McSorley took over a team that had gone 7-6 in its previous two seasons.

The numbers don’t lie, but McSorley’s journey from Christian Hackenberg’s backup to one of college football’s premier signal callers goes far beyond the stat sheet. Sure, he’s almost rewritten Penn State’s record book at the helm of the Nittany Lions, but his poise in high-pressure situations and ability to grab victory from the jaws of defeat has made him great in Happy Valley.

McSorley was an unknown commodity when he was named the starting quarterback of a team in a transitional, tumultuous time. The potential for disaster was always there, but No. 9’s talent combined with Joe Moorhead’s genius made for a dream combination.


The Trace McSorley era didn’t get off to an amazing start. The Ashburn, VA native picked up a fairly routine win in his first NCAA start over Kent State at Beaver Stadium. Penn State followed that up with a gut-wrenching loss to Pitt, but that game at least provided fans with a glimpse of the second-half magic McSorley has become famous for.

A too-close-for-comfort win over Temple was followed by what’s known in technical terms as a complete ass-kicking at the hands of Michigan. Penn State football was not in a good place entering a week five matchup with Minnesota following losses to two bitter rivals.

The Nittany Lions’ nightmare continued through the first half of that game, as the Golden Gophers led 13-3 at halftime. As chants of “Fire Franklin” rained down from the student section, McSorley engineered his first successful comeback as Penn State’s starter, taking down Minnesota 29-26 in overtime with a turnover-free performance.

Nobody imagined that Trace McSorley would blossom into one of college football’s best quarterbacks at halftime of the 2016 Minnesota game.

No. 9’s two-touchdown performance against Ohio State three weeks later was a driving factor in his second big comeback of the season. As we all know now, the victory was something of a turning point for Penn State’s football program. Without McSorley’s first big comeback, however, the Nittany Lions may not have had the momentum to make it happen.

From then on, nobody could stop Penn State for the remainder of the regular season. Led by McSorley, the Nittany Lions ran the table and punched their ticket in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin. The Badgers came out flying, but as you might remember, Penn State was a second-half team.

A 28-7 Wisconsin lead turned into a 28-28 tie by the end of the third quarter, and after the teams traded field goals, up stepped McSorley to throw his fourth touchdown of the game and, more importantly, make a conference-winning play.

McSorley was named the MVP of the 2016 Big Ten championship game after throwing four touchdown passes.

That magical season may have been capped off by a tough loss in the Rose Bowl, but Penn State football was officially back on the map in no small part thanks to Trace McSorley.


Penn State football entered the 2017 season with sky-high expectations for the first time in what felt like decades.

Although the team couldn’t repeat as conference champions and fell short of the College Football Playoff after consecutive losses at Ohio State and Michigan State, Trace McSorley proved that his 2016 season wasn’t just a fluke and that he was here to stay.

Victories over Akron, Pitt, and Georgia State were all (fairly) comfortable, but the team’s first true test of the season came at Kinnick Stadium against Iowa. Penn State’s first deficit of the game followed a 35-yard Iowa touchdown with 1:42 to play in the fourth quarter. McSorley would use every last second to put together his sixth come-from-behind victory.

McSorley’s buzzer-beating dot to Juwan Johnson may be his most iconic moment.

Saquon Barkley may have stolen the show in that game with 211 rushing yards, but it was McSorley who put a perfect pass in Juwan Johnson’s hands as time expired to keep Penn State’s unbeaten record alive. The good times continued to roll for Penn State after emphatic victories over Indiana and Northwestern, setting up a White Out grudge match with Michigan.

With College GameDay in town, the Nittany Lions dominated Michigan behind a record Beaver Stadium crowd. Never one to shy away from the big stage, McSorley put on a show, scoring three touchdowns in a game that effectively eliminated the Wolverines from Big Ten championship contention.

McSorley had Mike Gesicki jumping for joy during last season’s White Out.

Penn State bounced back from the Ohio State and Michigan State losses to run the table in the regular season, good enough to clinch a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. Although he threw two interceptions, McSorley’s team never trailed in the game, coming away with a 35-28 victory over Washington to clinch the team’s second consecutive 11-win season.


Two years on from his decision to start Trace McSorley, James Franklin is running a top-ten program. Though McSorley can’t take all the credit, No. 9 has had a lot to do with the program’s rise. A he enters his final season in charge of the Nittany Lions’ offense, the team’s fans hope for one last season of McSorley magic.

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

In the most upsetting turn of events, Mikey graduated from Penn State with a digital & print journalism degree in the spring of 2020. He covered Penn State football and served as an editor for Onward State from 2018 until his graduation. Mikey is from Bedminster, New Jersey, so naturally, he spends lots of time yelling about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey also loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is really hard. If you, for some reason, feel compelled to see what Mikey has to say on the internet, follow him on Twitter @Mikey_Mandarino. You can also get in touch with Mikey via his big-boy email address: [email protected]

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