UNIVERSITY PARK — It’s about 500 miles from Beaver Stadium to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the site of the Big Ten championship game.
Making the trip by car takes about eight hours. On Saturday, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley chose a quicker route.
By air, of course.
McSorley fired three long touchdown passes in the third quarter and jolted No. 7 Penn State to a 45-12 rout of Michigan State.
The comeback victory, combined with Ohio State’s double-overtime win against Michigan, put Penn State atop the Big Ten East.
The Nittany Lions (10-2, 8-1) will play Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2) at 8 p.m. Saturday in the conference title game. Also on the line is a possible berth in the College Football Playoff.
Without McSorley, who went 18 for 24 for 376 yards, Penn State wouldn’t have made it this far.
Penn State’s rushing game produced just 77 yards, its third-lowest total of the season. At halftime, the Lions had tried 17 runs for 14 yards.
Midway through the third quarter, a gimpy right ankle sent running back Saquon Barkley limping into the locker room. He did not return.
“We knew we had to get (the passing game) going,” McSorley said. “We knew we had to take some shots, loosen them up. They kept giving us one-on-one matchups on the outside, so we kept taking advantage of it.”
With Penn State down, 12-9, at halftime, offensive coordinator Joe Morehead told McSorley to keep looking for those one-one-one mismatches. The sophomore responded by going 6 for 6 for 157 yards in the third quarter.
Michigan State went three-and- out on its first possession of the third. Penn State scored on its next three drives, with McSorley firing TD strikes of 34 yards and 59 to wideout Chris Godwin and 45 yards to tight end Mike Gesicki.
“One of the most fun things about this offense is all the deep threats we have,” McSorley said. “Coach Morehead lets us take shots. He’s not going to back away. He trusts the guys on the field.”
On second-and-7 from Michigan State’s 34-yard line, Barkley picked up the blitz, which allowed McSorley to spot Godwin one-on-one with junior safety Montae Nicholson.
It was the kind mismatch that McSorley, who went into the game ranked sixth in FBS on pass plays of 30-plus yards, had been waiting to get.
As he burst down the left sideline, Godwin deked Nicholson at the 25-yard line. Those loose hips bought Godwin plenty of separation.
“When you make a double-fake and the defensive back stops, that’s when you know you’ve got him beat,” Godwin said. “Then you just wait for the ball to come down. Trace threw me a great ball.”
McSorley lofted the ball toward the pylon. Nicholson tried to close the gap, but Godwin had time to turn back to the ball and cradle it as he tumbled into the end zone.
McSorley has thrown a TD pass in 13 straight games.
Two minutes later, Gesicki sprinted past Nicholson and cornerback Darian Hicks and was uncovered at the 10. McSorley’s ball was a bit underthrown — Hicks and Nicholson converged — but Gesicki plucked it away for the score.
The catch gave Gesicki 610 receiving yards, the most in a season by a Penn State tight end. Mickey Schuler amassed 600 yards in 1977.
On the third bomb, McSorely scrambled and had some open field in front of him, but resisted the urge to run. Godwin popped open and pulled in the 59-yard score.
“Keeping my eyes downfield is something I’ve always been taught to do,” McSorley said. “It’s hard to cover guys for an extended period of time. If I can get out of the pocket and keep looking, it gives us an advantage.”