As he watched the TaxSlayer Bowl in early January 2016, Charlie Pierce took offense to a conversation among the announcers on the television broadcast.
The topic of discussion was an injury to Penn State starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg and how the Nittany Lions were in peril with backup Trace McSorley, then a freshman, pressed into service against Georgia.
Sitting on the edge of his chair, Pierce, who had coached McSorley at Briar Woods High in Northern Virginia, leaned forward and blurted aloud to no one in particular:
"You don't know Trace McSorley."
Most college football fans know McSorley from Penn State's stunning return to national prominence last year, when he helped lead the Nittany Lions to nine consecutive wins and the Big Ten championship after a 2-2 start. That propelled Penn State (1-0) to a No. 4 national ranking this season heading into Saturday's home game against instate rival Pittsburgh (1-0).
Pierce, however, can trace McSorley's rise back to his debut as a freshman at Briar Woods. The Falcons were trailing by a point with roughly three minutes left in their season opener and had possession at their 20-yard line.
With one timeout remaining, McSorley drove Briar Woods deep into Millbrook territory to set up the winning field goal, completing two fourth-down passes along the way. McSorley went on to start 60 consecutive games at Briar Woods, recording a school-record 55 victories and winning three straight state titles.
Having witnessed McSorley's will to win, Pierce had a feeling during that 2016 game against Georgia that his prized pupil would not be overmatched in what effectively amounted to an audition for the starting role the following season.
Although the Nittany Lions lost that game, 24-17, McSorley nearly directed an improbable comeback, throwing two touchdown passes to rally Penn State from a three-touchdown deficit late in the third quarter. That summer in training camp, Nittany Lions Coach James Franklin named McSorley the starter.
"I think you could probably win a state championship in a lot of states by having a really good year," Franklin said. "But when you're able to win at that high of a level that consistently, there's something more there. There's something about you that brings out the best in others."
McSorley's teammates confirm as much, and their belief in their unquestioned leader translated into Penn State finishing last season 11-3.
The Nittany Lions, who boasted thrilling wins over top 10 opponents Ohio State and Wisconsin, were in the mix down the stretch for one of the four berths in the College Football Playoff. The committee, however, selected Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Washington for those slots, and Penn State instead headed to the Rose Bowl to play Southern Cal in one of the most entertaining games of the season.
Penn State lost, 52-49, but McSorley completed 18 of 29 passes for 254 yards and four touchdowns, the last to running back Saquon Barkley with 1:55 left in the third quarter to expand the lead to 14 points.
"He's a tremendous leader," Penn State sophomore wide receiver Juwan Johnson said. "Any leader I've been around, he's always on top of us, saying we have to put our foot on the gas even more even if we're up by 30. He never wants to lose. You can see that in how he plays. You can see how passionate he is about the game. Just having that quarterback in your huddle is a blessing."
McSorley became one of four quarterbacks in the history of Penn State to win at least 10 games in his first season as the starter. He also set Penn State single-season records for total offense (3,979), passing yards (3,614) and passing touchdowns (29).
His five games of at least 300 passing yards were the most in a season for the Nittany Lions, and his passing efficiency rating of 156.9 ranked second all time at Penn State.
In last week's season opener against Akron, McSorley accounted for 328 yards of total offense and three touchdowns before sitting out the fourth quarter with Penn State's 52-0 win well in hand.
Despite his many achievements and busy schedule in college, McSorley makes time to stay in touch with his high school coach and former Briar Woods teammates, many of whom he has known since they played youth football together.
Pierce, in fact, said he and McSorley exchange text messages weekly.
"I think, really, if there's one thing that I took away from [Briar Woods] was how a strong core of leaders on the team can really change the perspective of everyone on the team," McSorley said. "It wasn't that we were going into games hoping to be competitive. We were going in expecting to win in high school, and that was something that really sat with me.
"And I've tried to bring a little bit of that here."
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