When it matters most, Trace McSorley has been one of the most clutch players in recent memory for Penn State, as he was Saturday night against Michigan. The numbers back that up. ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO.

There are a million things you can take away if you watched Penn State dismantle Michigan on Saturday night, a million ways to look at how the offense took apart the Wolverines, to look at how the defense swarmed the overpowered Michigan offense with speed and power and tenacity, to look at how the coaching staff gameplanned to near perfection, to marvel at Saquon Barkley’s generational greatness and DaeSean Hamilton’s relentless pursuit of improvement and the offensive line’s resilience and Mike Gesicki’s athleticism.

But, here’s what I took away from that 42-13 win, and what Penn State fans need to remember next time he turns their Saturday into an emotional roller coaster: When it matters most, in the biggest moments of the biggest games this Penn State team has played, Trace McSorley has been the best performer on the field. He has been the most important cog in the offense, in the clutch, when being clutch matters.

Excluding nobody.

“Clutch” is difficult to define in sports, for sure. In baseball, there are people — smart people, even — who insist “the clutch” doesn’t even exist. You can only do what you can do, they say, and the suggestion that you can do more than you can do at certain times, in certain situations, defies all logic.

But, we know there’s such a thing as the clutch. We know there are coworkers who do a better job working against a tight deadline than others. We know there are surgeons with the steadier hand in the most delicate of cases. If you’re ever on an airplane with some minor mechanical problems going on, you might have confidence that your pilot will land the thing without issue. But, admit it, you’d replace him or her with Sully, if you could. Because you know, clutch matters.

And, if there’s such a thing as clutch, you have to understand how good McSorley is when he enters that zone.

First, we’ll look at Saturday.

A colleague of mine — and I don’t remember who it was, nor did I necessarily disagree at the time — Tweeted early Saturday night after the Nittany Lions had jumped out to a 14-0 lead on the Wolverines that they were winning in spite of McSorley. He had airmailed some early passes, despite time to throw. Most of Saturday’s first half, he didn’t look accurate with his throws. He didn’t look calm in the pocket. He threw what looked for a while like a momentum-swinging interception deep in Michigan territory that many blamed on the route Gesicki ran. But, it’s at least conceivable Gesicki had the option there to take it deep or run the out, depending on the coverage. And if that’s the case — and it certainly sounded like it might have been after the game — Gesicki was breaking free toward the end zone. That would put more of the blame on McSorley for not reading the coverage properly and trying to force a throw.

Regardless, it wasn’t the most sterling first 28 minutes and 15 seconds of a game McSorley ever played. In that time, he completed 7 of 14 passes for 94 yards and that interception. Penn State led comfortably most of that time, but McSorley was only so-so.

Well, just before that 28:15 expired, Michigan did something big: It challenged the Nittany Lions, big time. Moved 67 yards in eight plays in a bit more than three minutes and turned Penn State’s big start into a 14-13 deficit with halftime looming. And coming out of that break, the Wolverines were getting the ball.

If they could hold the Nittany Lions back at that point, Michigan probably would have considered the first half a victory, and it would have been in great shape to pull the upset down the stretch.

But with 1:45 to play in the half and the ball at their 25, the Nittany Lions marched downfield thanks in large part to McSorley doing what he hadn’t done in the game to that point. He settled down and began firing strikes. One to Juwan Johnson on a drag route that went for 12. A second to Hamilton on the very next play, on one of the fade routes that became such an important part of the attack, burning safety Josh Metellus for 36 yards to the Michigan 27. A few plays later, out of a timeout, McSorley dropped another fade pass perfectly, over Khaleke Hudson and into the hands of a leaping Gesicki to get inside the 5.

Next play: McSorley sprinted up the middle from 3 yards out for the score.

Game seemed just about over at that point. Michigan expertly withstood the early onslaught, sure. But if McSorley was going to play like that, marching downfield for a score in 52 seconds against statistically the best total defense in the nation coming into the game, it became clear. There was no keeping up with that offense for Michigan.

Once the Wolverines got within a point with 1:45 left in the second quarter, here is how McSorley responded: By going 10 of 12 for 192 yards and a touchdown through the air, and by rushing for 53 yards and three touchdowns on seven carries.

His quarterback rating before that point: 92.1.

His QBR after that point: 245.2.

Now, let’s look at the past.

Penn State has won 16 of its last 17 games, but for the purpose of this exercise, we’ll only look at McSorley’s performance against the most challenging opponents, or in the closest games.



Subsequent performance

vs. Minnesota

Trailing, 13-3


Passing: 10-22, 240 yds., TD
Rushing: 4-47

vs. Ohio State

Trailing, 19-7
10:10 left in 3Q

Passing: 5-13, 81 yds
Rushing: 10-22

at Purdue

Tied, 17-17

Passing: 4-9, 66 yds., 2 TD

at Indiana

Trailing, 24-14
1:09 left in 3Q

Passing: 6-8, 183 yds., TD

vs. Michigan State

Trailing, 12-10

Passing: 10-14, 265 yrds., 4 TD

vs. Wisconsin
Big Ten Championship

Trailing, 28-7
5:15 left in 2Q

Passing: 15-20, 300, 3 TD

vs. USC
Rose Bowl

Trailing, 27-14
6:16 left in 2Q

Passing: 12-16-1, 150 yds., 3 TD
Rushing: 5-14, TD

at Iowa

Trailing, 19-15
1:42 left

Passing: 7-11, 68 yds., TD
Rushing: 1-12

That’s clearly a pretty incredible job that McSorley has accomplished for Penn State when it finds itself in its toughest spots.

If you needed it piled together collectively: He’s 79 for 125 for 1,545 yards, 16 touchdowns and one interception.

When it has mattered most for Penn State…

That’s a 63.2 percent completion rate.

That’s 12.4 yards per pass attempt and — get this — 19.6 yards per completion.

That’s a 207.7 passer rating.

That’s one interception in 125 attempts.

(And how important is McSorley in those moments? That interception was the one that set up the winning field goal for USC in the Rose Bowl late in the fourth quarter. So, the one mistake he made in a very long stretch of important minutes was one his team could not overcome. As McSorley goes in the clutch, so goes Penn State.)

Those are almost unbelievable numbers. So unthinkable, I checked them several times for accuracy.

But, that’s the kind of player Trace McSorley is. Rarely a game goes by where someone on social media, or via an email, suggests it might be time to give Tommy Stevens a chance. Then, by the time Penn State is walking off the field victorious, those same fans are probably thrilled No. 9 is their quarterback.