Penn State rally falls short as Nittany Lions lose TaxSlayer Bowl

Bob Cohn
| Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, 3:33 p.m.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Penn State lost Christian Hackenberg during Saturday's TaxSlayer Bowl, which was not expected, and also lost him for good, which was much expected.

After leaving with a sprained right shoulder during the second quarter of a 24-17 loss to Georgia, the junior quarterback revealed during a postgame interview that he will give up his senior season and enter the NFL Draft.

“My family and I felt like this was best for me,” he said. “My role here at Penn State, my job has been accomplished. It's in good hands moving forward, and I'm proud of that.”

Hackenberg's announcement deflected some attention from his replacement, Trace McSorley, who nearly brought back the Nittany Lions from a 24-3 third-quarter deficit and from a fourth straight loss that set the final record at 7-6 for a second straight season, after a 5-1 start.

“You can't come out and start slow the way we did and think you're going to beat that type of opponent in a bowl game,” coach James Franklin said. “That's not just offense. I think it's easy obviously to sit here and say offensively we started slow. But I really feel defensively that was the case, and special teams as well.

“Defensively we made big plays later in the game, sacks, tackles for loss, momentum plays we weren't able to get going early. Offensively we weren't able to consistently run the ball and we weren't able to consistently make plays when we needed to.”

Trailing 17-3 before an announced crowd of 58,212 at EverBank Field, Penn State got just 23 yards in 10 carries in the first half from freshman 1,000-yard rusher Saquon Barkley. Hackenberg was 8 of 14 for 139 yards with an interception before he departed.

With six catches for 133 yards, Chris Godwin became the third Penn State receiver to reach 1,000 yards in a season.

Georgia fooled the Nittany Lions' 14th-ranked defense in the first half with a 44-yard touchdown pass from receiver Terry Godwin, lining up in the wildcat position, to Malcolm Mitchell. Then the Bulldogs took their time with a seven-play, 58-yard drive that ended with a 17-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Greyson Lambert to Godwin. This happened after Lambert was pulled for a couple of series.

Early in the third quarter, Sony Michel's 21-yard touchdown run capped a seven-play, 56-yard drive that made it 24-3. Not only did another Penn State loss seem certain, it figured to be a blowout.

But as Georgia went conservative and stuck to the ground, McSorley, listed at 6-foot, 196 pounds and known for his mobility, overcame a shaky start.

The redshirt freshman, who completed 6 of 13 pass attempts in the regular season, engineered fourth-quarter touchdown drives of 75 and 58 yards.

Each ended with a well-thrown pass, 17 yards to Geno Lewis and 20 yards to DaeSean Hamilton, bringing the Lions to within 24-17.

“It's the same game I've always been playing,” McSorley said. “There's no difference in the field size or field width or whatever it may be. It's the same game. It's football. And that's what helped me. Guys were telling me (at halftime) it's the same game I've been playing since I was 9 years old. Just come out and execute and play for the love of the game. Just go out and have fun. Thirty-minutes left in game. No reason to hold back.”

McSorley had one more chance, but that was after Georgia, staying with the run, moved from its 22 after false-start penalty to the Penn State 23. Keith Marshall was stopped on fourth down.

But the 10 plays — plus a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty on defensive tackle Austin Johnson — ate up four minutes, 18 seconds and by the time the Lions took over on their 25, they were out of timeouts with 1:52 to go.

Sparked by McSorley's 14-yard run, Penn State advanced to the Georgia 39, but only 8 seconds remained. McSorley lofted a Hail Mary that was batted down at the 1.

Bob Cohn is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.

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