ASHBURN, Va. — The “LaVar Leap” by linebacker LaVar Arrington is an iconic play in Penn State football history, and the Nittany Lions’ new quarterback once soared to his own memorable moment.
Trace McSorley, who was named Penn State’s starting quarterback Wednesday, was a star quarterback and safety for Briar Woods High School in Northern Virginia. To set the scene, Briar Woods was attempting to win a fourth straight state championship on a wet, frigid day at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va.
Briar Woods had won three straight titles in Class 4A, but moved up to Class 5A in McSorley’s senior season. Only two schools had ever won four straight titles in Virginia prep history, and none had done so with the same quarterback. Briar Woods had a chance to accomplish the feat against L.C. Bird High School, the defending Class 5A champs.
McSorley’s team led 21-6 at halftime. Earl Hughes, the L.C. Bird running back who had more than 3,000 rushing yards that season, vexed the Briar Woods defense during the game. He finished with 213 yards on the ground and 88 on four catches.
L.C. Bird moved the ball to the 2-yard line midway through the third quarter when McSorley, lined up at safety, noted a new formation on first-and-goal.
“Through the game plan that week, we knew when they got to the goal line they would always overload one side and it was like 100 percent of the time the ball went to that side,” McSorley said.
The overload was to the left side of the L.C. Bird offense. Hughes took the handoff and followed a lead blocker to the left. McSorley diagnosed the play and came rushing to the line of scrimmage.
“I was standing back there thinking I might be able to get in on a pile up if there was one, but right from the snap I was like, ‘I’m going for it,’ ” McSorley said.
Hughes took a step to his left to try to bounce the run to the outside. McSorley, who leaped in the air to avoid the players between them, landed on Hughes and knocked him to the ground short of the end zone.
It was an incredible individual play, but it didn’t prevent L.C. Bird’s 35-28 comeback victory. McSorley finished the game with 255 passing yards, 74 rushing yards and three touchdowns on offense, He also led the team with 10 tackles and an interception.
“(Current Penn State wide receiver Brandon) Polk got hurt in the first half, and our best linebacker got hurt, so we were a little limited,” Briar Woods coach Charlie Pierce said. “When it was tied, 28-28, the guy who replaced Polk ran a crossing route and got in front of the safety. Trace put it right on his hands, but it hit off him and the safety intercepted it. Then they went down and scored and that was the game.”
Arrington’s signature moment at Penn State came in 1998. Penn State led Illinois, 21-0, in the third quarter. The Illini faced a fourth-and-1 on the edge of field goal range, and coach Ron Turner decided to keep the offense on the field. Arrington timed the snap count perfectly and leaped over the line of scrimmage, crashing into fullback Elmer Hickman as he took the handoff.
McSorley’s version, let’s call it the “McSorley Surge,” is the third clip in his senior highlights package below. The first two plays are touchdown passes to Polk, and one of his three to Melvin Holland Jr., now at the University of Minnesota, in the state title game against L.C. Bird.
McSorley’s defensive play did not have a big impact on the outcome, but it was a memorable effort. It also combined McSorley’s athleticism, preparation, bravado and ability to improvise into one short highlight.
“They had a good running back, and he was beating us up pretty bad,” said McSorley’s father, Rick. “Trace thought he needed to make something happen. It’s a terrible play if you guess wrong, and I’m sure LaVar would say that, too. He guessed right, but in the stands I was saying, ‘Oh crap, what is he thinking?’ It was desperation time, and he took a chance.”