Even now, more than three years later, Trace McSorley remembers the feeling perfectly: “Quite frankly, honestly, being embarrassed.”
Through four games, Penn State sat at 2-2, fresh off a 49-10 dismantling at Michigan Stadium. This wasn’t what the Nittany Lions expected to be, what the 2016 season was supposed to bring.
“It was a bad loss, ugly loss all around,” McSorley told The Daily this week. “We didn’t want to have that happen again, just that feeling that we had after that game.”
Outside the program, frustration rose to a fever pitch.
The third paragraph in PennLive’s story from the Michigan game read: “And with the Lions in their third year with James Franklin, the talent gap between Penn State and Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State appears to be widening.”
Flip a few of those names around and you have the same eulogies currently being written about the 2019 Wolverines. Attribute McSorley’s quote to Jim Harbaugh or Shea Patterson after Michigan’s 35-14 loss to Wisconsin two weeks ago and no one would bat an eye.
There’s a kicker, though.
Three months later, McSorley stood on a podium in Lucas Oil Stadium, draped in confetti, triumphantly raising the Big Ten championship trophy over his head.
Celebrating a few feet behind him, with the rest of the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff, was then-Penn State wide receivers coach Josh Gattis.
So when Gattis gathered the Wolverines together after the Wisconsin game, he had a story to tell.
“I shared with them — as coaches, this is something a lot of us have been through before,” Gattis said. “I know I’ve been through it in my career.
“… Our players came together and we went on to win the Big Ten championship that year. So sometimes, adversity is something that you never want to use to bond your guys together, but it’s something that forms a bond, because when you go through the pressure situations, it only makes you tighter.”
McSorley’s recollection matches Gattis’. There was no magic schematic change or rallying cry that righted the ship. “It was just coming out and playing better,” McSorley says now.
The issue, then, is how to do that. For Penn State, the one tangible thing McSorley can put his finger on is players-only film sessions held by the team’s senior leaders on off days.
Those film sessions aren’t what fixed the Nittany Lions’ season, but they speak to a bigger part of the fabric of that team.
“Our senior leaders and captains were able to able to make sure we righted the ship,” McSorley said. “But it was kind of an all-around thing. The leaders get everything going and get everyone to buy in, but we needed to have all the other guys willing and able to buy in and know what we were trying to go and work for and how we were going to be able to fix it.
“So it’s kind of an all-around team effort, but I think the leaders and seniors and captains that we had on that team were the ones who spearheaded it and were able to get everyone going the right way.”
All these years later, the same message reverberates around Schembechler Hall.
In the last week, it’s come from captains Khaleke Hudson, Ben Bredeson and Carlo Kemp, but it’s also come from Josh Uche and Jordan Glasgow and anyone else who’s had a chance to speak to the media.
“It’s not a single person’s effort, it’s everybody’s effort,” Uche said. “You don’t even have to be a senior, just everyone stepping up, keeping the morale up and keeping the energy up. This is a team, this isn’t an individual thing, this is a team effort.”
Bredeson — one of those senior leaders at the heart of this team’s identity — said, “It’s more stabilizing everything. Khaleke, Carlo and I, we’ve been here a while, we’ve seen the ebbs and flows of the season so just trying to maintain and control things.”
They’ve seen a season-opening loss, last year at Notre Dame — something that’s been repeated ad nauseam since Wisconsin — and a lifeless 8-5 season in 2017. What they haven’t seen is a start quite like this, with an utter embarrassment just three games in.
Before 2016, neither had McSorley, then in his first year as a starter.
“At that time, we had only had one Big Ten loss so we knew, again, anything could happen in that conference,” McSorley said. “So we just wanted to come out and be competitive and win games and focus on us, not worry about all the other things that would have to happen.”
That’s a lot easier to say now, from his spot on the Baltimore Ravens’ 53-man roster, than it would have been amid the fire of September 2016. But the point remains — everything was ahead of Penn State, just as it is for Michigan now.
They escaped an overtime win at Minnesota the next week, before an uninspiring win over Maryland took them into a matchup with No. 2 Ohio State at 4-2.
“It was honestly just (a chance to show people who we were),” McSorley said. “Just another opportunity to go out and compete and show who we were. That’s the kinda group of guys we had, just prideful, competitive dudes that wanted to go out and win games.”
Similarly, Harbaugh called Michigan’s upcoming game against No. 14 Iowa a chance to turn good performances into a “trend.” According to Kemp, it’s the Wolverines’ opportunity to show they can “perform on Saturdays.”
Of course, Iowa isn’t Ohio State — even if Harbaugh carries a .000 winning percentage against both. Beating the Hawkeyes won’t be the sort of afternoon fans remember years later, like Penn State’s eventual 24-21 win over the Buckeyes.
What it would be is the same type of confidence boost that the Nittany Lions got from that win. As McSorley puts it, a sense they could “compete with anyone” — something they carried into a nine-game win streak.
“That was one of those times where you almost had to do it and see it to be able to know exactly what it felt like,” McSorley said. “And then once you got it, you were able to repeat it over and over again in the coming weeks and games.”
For Michigan, those coming weeks and games will bring tougher tests than Iowa. The 2019 iteration of Penn State is one of them. The 2016 iteration can show them how to get through it.