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Penn State clinches Big 10 title appearance with rout over Michigan State

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Trace McSorely threw for 376 yards and four touchdowns as Penn State clinched an appearance in the Big 10 championship game with a 45-12 rout of Michigan State on Saturday afternoon in Happy Valley.

Seven minutes into the first quarter, Beaver Stadium erupted.

Not in response to anything happening on the field, but rather something that was happening on a field 300 miles away.  In Columbus, Ohio, Ohio State had just defeated Michigan in a 30-27 overtime thriller and Nittany Lions fans began to go nuts as the push notifications popped up on their phone screens. The Michigan loss cleared the path for the Lions to advance to the Big Ten Championship Game as long as they beat Michigan State.

"I didn't find out until the crowd erupted," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "I don't know if we were necessarily rooting for one team, but we sure did want another team to lose."

Penn State fans would later go nuts for their own team after the Nittany Lions beat the Spartans 45-12, but for the rest of that first half, it was getting past Michigan State that proved to be a problem, as the Lions went into the half trailing the Spartans 12-10. In the first 30 minutes of play, the Lions offense managed just 125 yards to the Spartans' 256 yards.

Defensively, Penn State looked clumsy as Michigan State moved the ball with ease in the first half, racking up 17 first downs and six third-down conversions. They finished all four of their drives with field goals.

But just minutes after the Lions reappeared from the locker room for the second half, Penn State fans were going nuts once again, this time for their own team.

"The fact that the students drove back in, with this being Thanksgiving break, was significant," Franklin said.

All season long, Franklin has tried to deny that his team is a second-half squad. But Saturday night's contest did little to prove that narrative false.

"We have done a great job of making adjustments at halftime," Franklin said. "We didn't do a great job getting movement early in the game, but we stuck together and then did a great job in the second half making plays."

Quarterback Trace McSorley, who has improved dramatically each and every week, took arguably his biggest leap forward in Saturday's second half, as he tossed all four of his touchdowns and 265 of his career-high 376 yards in the final two frames. All that yardage came on just 23 attempts.

"Trace has got a really good feel in the pocket, stepping up and knowing when he needs to run, knowing when he has a little more time to keep his eyes down the field," Franklin said. "It's been fun to watch those guys make plays and it's been fun to watch Trace grow up in front of our eyes."

After the defense struggled in the first half, the unit reemerged in the third quarter as if the earlier struggles never happened, forcing a Michigan State three-and-out on their first drive.

McSorely and the Penn State offense responded immediately, driving 52 yards and capping the drive off with a 34-yard touchdown strike to Chris Godwin to give the Lions a lead they would never relinquish.

"Our defense did a great job and they've continued to do that, they preach that they want to get that three-and-out and get the ball back to the offense," McSorely said. "So on offense, we want to get a touchdown on the next drive. Especially for us at home, when we force a three-and-out and then a touchdown, that gets the crowd into it and really helps us build momentum."

The TD to Godwin was one of two the junior receiver would snag, as he also finished with a season-high 135 receiving yards.

Saturday's game marked the first time McSorely had thrown three touchdown passes in a quarter and it also extended his 13-game streak with a TD pass, dating back to the TaxSlayer Bowl in January.

McSorely's performance was even more impressive considering the lack of help he had from star running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley, one of the top backs in the nations, was bottled up for just 14 yards on 12 carries, although he did have a spectacular leaping touchdown in the second quarter. In the third quarter, Barkley exited the game with what appeared to be an ankle injury.

But in his absence, backup running back Andre Robinson had arguably his finest moments as a Nittany Lion, racking up 32 rushing yards on three carries and a touchdown to go along with his 40 yard receiving touchdown.

"All Andre really does is score touchdowns," Franklin said. "Touchdowns and first downs, he's done a great job."Penn State Trace McSorely

As improbable as it may have seemed at the beginning of the season, Penn State emerged as the Big Ten East Division champions on Saturday night and that means their season continues on to bigger and more important games, firstly in Indianapolis next weekend.

"The regular season is over and we have an opportunity to keep this family together for a few more weeks," Franklin said. "We'll enjoy this win for about an hour and then we'll get started on Wisconsin… Wisconsin's been doing it the right way for a long time and we're honored to play them in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis."

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