UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Faced with a seven-point deficit and only 1:20 on the clock, Penn State turned to quarterback Trace McSorley to get the offense down the field to tie the game and ultimately lead them a 45-38 overtime victory against Appalachian State on Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium.
“Execute,” McSorley said. “That’s all we needed to do every single play. Coach (Ricky) Rahne talks about it all the time, don’t make a play, make the play.”
And that’s exactly what the Nittany Lions did after KJ Hamler‘s 52-yard kickoff return which put the offense at the Appalachian State 48-yard line, setting them up for the eventual tying score.
McSorley found tight end Jonathan Holland for a 7-yard gain on first down before hitting wide receiver Brandon Polk with a 10-yard pass on fourth down to keep Penn State’s drive alive. The redshirt senior then found Juwan Johnson for 14 yards on the next play to set up first-and-10 from the 16.
After a 1-yard McSorley rush, the Heisman hopeful found Hamler on a post pattern to tie the game with 42 seconds left in regulation.
“We weren’t shooting shots down the field, trying to get chunk plays. They were giving us some things in the flat, and we were able to take 9, 10 yards by doing that. I think that’s the perfect example of making the play, and it ends up working out for us,” McSorley said.
In his first game action in nearly two years, Hamler showed no ill effects of the injury that sidelined him his senior year of high school and forced him to redshirt last season. He had the poise of a veteran late in the game, and that’s what the coaching staff has come to expect from their young playmaker.
“One of the things we probably have to look at is ways we can get his hands on the ball a little bit more, offensively and on special teams, because he has a chance to change the game at any moment,” James Franklin said.
For Hamler, though, it was about making the right play at the right time.
“I just had to win, that’s how we play, we play to win mentality,” Hamler said. “I just had to make a play on the ball.”
It’s not easy for a redshirt freshman to have a performance like Hamler did against the Mountaineers, and it takes a special player to remain calm and cool with the game on the line. However, McSorley knows a thing or two about being clutch and making plays when it matters most.
“You can’t go out and stress and try too hard and make a play,” McSorley said. “You just gotta run your route and do your job and make the play. That’s exactly what KJ did at the end of the game. He went out, ran his route, did what he was supposed to do and made the play that was presented to him.”
THE GAME BALLS
My top three performers:
1. Trace McSorley
Penn State quarterback
The redshirt senior had 69 yards through the air in a lousy first half for Penn State, but finished with 260 yards on 21-for-36 passing with one touchdown. McSorley also chipped in 53 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
2. KJ Hamler
Penn State wide receiver
Hamler, in his first action since his senior year of high school, had a 52-yard kickoff return to set up his game-tying touchdown. The redshirt freshman finished with six catches for 68 yards.
3. Zac Thomas
Appalachian State quarterback
Thomas gashed the Penn State defense, going 25-for-38 with 270 yards passing and an interception in his first career start. The sophomore signal caller for the Mountaineers also added 57 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
In the first game post-Saquon Barkley, it was the running backs who were a bright spot for Penn State against the Mountaineers, as the team ran for 219 total yards and five touchdowns among four backs.
Miles Sanders got the bulk of the carries, rushing 19 times for 91 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner in his first start.
“I’ve been waiting for this since I got here,” Sanders said. “I’m just trying to do whatever I gotta do to help the team win.”
The Nittany Lions used a trio of backs, with Ricky Slade and Mark Allen often spelling Sanders in the backfield. Slade rushed six times for 39 yards and his first collegiate touchdown while Allen chipped in 24 yards on five rushes.
It would be no surprise if Penn State used that same formula moving forward as each back has a unique skillset to keep opponents on their toes.
Penn State got torched for 28 points in the fourth quarter as Appalachian State marched down the field with ease. Thomas accounted for three touchdowns, two passing and one rushing, while throwing for 175 yards in the quarter.
Up front, the Nittany Lions looked gassed late in the game, and the Mountaineers ran all over them in the fourth quarter, accumulating 91 yards on 12 rushes. And while the guys up front played terribly, the secondary, all things considered, played even worse.
“The safeties have to get off the hash, and the corners have to jam the vertical,” Franklin said. “We can’t let a full releaser up the sidelines. Besides that, they did a good job on saying we’re going to get the ball out quick, we’re going to dink and dunk.”
If Penn State stands any chance at defeating Pitt next week, tackling will have to be an emphasis, but most importantly, the run game has to be defended better.
“We have to be better against the run,” Franklin said. “When you watch that game, the series we got them off schedule — tackle for a loss, sack, or penalty — we had three-and-outs. But when we didn’t, they were just getting positive plays, 40 yards, 60 yards, things like that.”
Down a touchdown, with the ball on the Appalachian State 15-yard line and 46 seconds left in the game, McSorley dropped back to pass, looked a defender in the eye and fired a laser to Hamler to tie the game and ultimately send the game to overtime.
How we got to OT: pic.twitter.com/M4uNFbpjm5
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 1, 2018
On the first five kickoffs KJ Hamler fielded, he took a knee on the end zone. The sixth? He fielded it 2 yards into the end zone and promptly took it 52 yards to the Appalachian State 48 to ultimately set up the game-tying touchdown for the Nittany Lions.
“My friend, JT (Johnathan Thomas), usually gives me the signal to go or not, and he didn’t give me a signal, so I said, alright, go,” Hamler said. “I just went, and luckily, it put us in good field position.”
THE OTHER SIDE
With the show Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas put on against the Penn State defense Saturday afternoon, you wouldn’t have known it was his first collegiate start.
Thomas had a 65.8 percent completion percentage, and the vast majority of those completions were right on the money for the sophomore signal caller.
“The only play on (Tariq) Castro-Fields, the guy makes the perfect throw, over the shoulder, outside, fully in stride right on the sidelines,” Franklin raved about Thomas. “He made a big-time throw in a big-time situation.”
Appalachian State has the potential to ruin a Power 5 team’s season and almost pulled off another upset Saturday night. The Mountaineers could very well see themselves riding the arm of Thomas to success once again in the Sun Belt Conference.
THE INJURY UPDATE
• Tommy Stevens, quarterback, took part in pregame warmups, but did not suit up after being in a walking boot the last few weeks. There’s no timetable for his return.
• Shane Simmons, defensive end, was held out of Saturday’s game as a result of an ankle injury sustained in training camp.
• Justin Shorter, wide receiver, did not play Saturday due to being dinged up in training camp. There’s no immediate timetable for his return.
Penn State will have their weekly press conference Tuesday at 12:30 p.m as they prepare for their upcoming trip to Pittsburgh to take on in-state rival Pitt at Heinz Field next Saturday at 8 p.m.
Visit our Penn State team page for everything from this game.