Penn State Loses Bowl Game, Star Underclassmen in Florida
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Christian Hackenberg has weathered over 100-plus sacks in his three-year collegiate career at Penn State. Each time, he got up and rallied his troops, seldom missing a subsequent snap.
The junior quarterback took a hard fall on his throwing shoulder in the second quarter of Penn State’s postseason contest versus Georgia on Saturday, which ultimately knocked him out of the game and opened the door to backup quarterback Trace McSorley.
After trailing 24-3 through three quarters, the deficit proved to be insurmountable, despite a late rally, as Penn State (7-6, 4-4 Big Ten) lost 24-17 Georgia (10-3, 5-3 SEC) in the TaxSlayer Bowl at EverBank Field.
Hackenberg left 8 of 14 for 139 yards and an interception. He was injured while scrambling out of a collapsing pocket to gain a few yards. Visibly hobbled, he tried to finish the series--going 3 of 4 for 50 yards afterwards--but could not continue.
"He came down on a shoulder joint and sprained (it). As a quarterback, when you do that to that joint, it's painful. You lose strength," said Penn State head coach James Franklin, uncommon from the coach that reluctantly divulges injury reports. "He was going to try to finish that drive. Once he went inside, the trainers, doctors, didn't feel like he was going to be able to go well enough to continue playing."
Coming into the game was McSorley, who was a redshirt freshman who had attempted just 13 passes in his previous six appearances this season. His coaches and teammates watched him steadily grow more comfortable against the nation’s best pass defense entering the game.
In his first chance at extended meaningful snaps, McSorley finished 14 of 27 for 142 yards, completing touchdowns to receivers Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton, respectively, in the fourth quarter, to lead Penn State’s late comeback bid.
"Geno [Lewis] and DaeSean [Hamilton] went up and made a great play in the middle of two guys, you've got to give them a chance, and you give them a chance and they'll win it," McSorley said. "I felt pretty excited to throw my first touchdown pass. To get in a bowl game it helped me to know that I can give these guys a chance."
Hamilton hauled in a diving catch after McSorley zipped a perfect ball over double coverage for his receiver to cut the lead to a one-possession game with six minutes remaining.
A forced turnover on downs gave Penn State the ball on its own 25 yard line down 24-17 with 1:52 left and no timeouts, but despite converting two fourth downs, time expired after the McSorley's Hail Mary launch into the end zone was knocked down.
"Defensively we made big plays later in the game, sacks, tackles for loss, momentum plays we weren't able to get going early," Franklin said. "Offensively we weren't able to consistently run the ball and we weren't able to consistently make plays when we needed to."
Georgia wide receiver Terry Godwin burned the Penn State secondary twice for scores, first with his arm--a 44-yard bomb to Malcolm Mitchell. Godwin then hauled in a 17-yard reception with just 24 seconds before halftime to give the Bulldogs a 17-3 advantage at the break.
Penn State opened the game with an eight play, 45-yard drive that spanned five minutes before being halted by a Dominick Sanders interception, his sixth of the season, as he corralled a ball that ricocheted off Saquon Barkley.
The Nittany Lions have yet to score a touchdown on their opening possession under second-year coach Franklin, the last one coming in November 2013 versus Michigan.
The subsequent three drives resulted in punts, before Tyler Davis connected on a 34-yard field goal to tie the game with 8:08 left in the second quarter.
Georgia running back Sony Michel paced the Bulldogs on the ground, entering the fourth quarter with 77 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries as Georgia coasted with a 24-3 lead.
After the game, Hackenberg announced to reporters he will forego his senior season of eligibility and declare for the 2016 NFL Draft, a decision he already made coming into the game.
"I feel like my job at Penn State has been accomplished and its in good hands moving forward," he said. "It's been a awesome ride. Tough way it kind of ended, but I bleed blue and white, and this place means the world to me."
In a release following the announcement, Franklin added, "... But for all of his accomplishments on the field, he will be also be remembered for his leadership off the field during a trying time in program history."
Moments after Hackenberg, fellow underclassman Austin Johnson conceded he will also forego his final year of eligibility.
"Austin [Johnson] has been an impact player on this team and leader for us on defense," Franklin said in another release. "We’re excited to see him continue his career in the NFL and wish him nothing but success."
Johnson's early departure along with the conclusion to the careers of seniors Anthony Zettel and Carl Nassib, a consensus All-American this season, will result in three new starters next year for one of the nation's most disruptive D-lines.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has Hackenberg touted as the fifth-best draft-eligible quarterback, while Johnson sits at seventh-best in a deep pool of defensive tackles. Both expected to be drafted within the first three rounds.
This senior class featured the remaining six players to have played for the late Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno, albeit in a redshirt capacity.
"Told the guys in the locker room how much we appreciate the seniors," Franklin said. "I don't want them to leave the locker room until they've gone around and told each other how much they care about them because it's the last time the 2015 football family will be together."
Penn State will spend the offseason installing the offense of recently hired offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who served in a spectator capacity since being hired last December. The new-look Nittany Lions will debut at the annual spring game on April 16 at Beaver Stadium, with live coverage on ComRadio.
"Now the real work starts, got to get ready heading into spring and working with coach Moorhead and learning how we're going to be doing things now," said McSorley, who's expected to compete with freshman redshirt Tommy Stevens and 2016 early enrollee Jake Zembiec for the starting quarterback job.
Marley Paul is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @MarleyPaul22.