Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley tossed it up to Chris Godwin, a combination that worked so well time and time again on Monday night.
But the Nittany Lions went to the 50-50 balls one too many times.
No. 9 Southern California defeated No. 5 Penn State 52-49 in the 103rd edition of the Rose Bowl in a wild shootout affair after McSorley was picked off by Leon McQuay, leading to a 46-yard field goal by Trojans placekicker Matt Boermeester as time expired to hand Penn State just its third loss of the season.
The Nittany Lions (11-3) led by 14 late in the fourth quarter, but USC (10-3) found the end zone twice in the final five minutes — and Boermeester’s leg was the straw that broke Penn State’s back.
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“You’ve got to give USC credit,” Penn State coach James Franklin said as his eyes welled with tears. “I’m really, really proud of our guys. There’s a lot of raw emotion in that locker room. There’s a lot of hurt. ... But they should hold their chins held high.”
Franklin said coaches came up to him in the locker room, apologizing and expressing their disappointment. But the coach shrugged it off and made sure they knew that everyone was “in it together.”
Many might question Penn State’s decision to throw it deep late, and Franklin said he and the staff felt they could pull it off.
“There was discussion on the headset to run the ball and play for overtime. But that’s not really who we’ve been,” Franklin said of the team’s tendency to take shots. “You can’t turn the ball over in that situation. That’s the difference.”
But that’s what Penn State did. On third down, the Nittany Lions could’ve ran the clock out.
Instead, they took a shot — Godwin, who finished with nine catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns, was well-covered.
McSorley’s heave fell in the hands of McQuay, who ran it down the sidelines from USC’s 35-yard line to Penn State’s 33.
Two plays and five yards later, Boermeester lined up with five seconds left.
“The game was on the line,” the kicker said. “But I had to stay true to my technique.”
His kick split the uprights with little problem, and it was USC’s celebration to be had.
In the middle of the post-game confetti party was USC quarterback Sam Darnold, who was exceptional, especially on the game’s tying drive. The redshirt freshman tallied 453 yards and five touchdowns while completing 62 percent of his passes.
In the highest-scoring Rose Bowl game ever, Darnold was critical for the Trojans late, hitting Deontay Burnett on a 27-yard crossing pattern in the end zone for the game’s final touchdown with 1:20 remaining.
“I love the quiet confidence about him,” USC coach Clay Helton said of Darnold. “He was so glued in and so focused at the task at hand.”
The Nittany Lions trailed the Trojans by six at halftime, but came out with the intensity of a team known for its second-half comebacks.
After a forcing a three-and-out on the first possession of the half, Penn State, more specifically Saquon Barkley, made USC pay in a big way. Barkley ripped off a nasty 79-yard run on Penn State’s first play of the half, splitting several defenders and breaking the ankles of at least five Trojans.
The play gave Penn State a 28-27 lead, and the Nittany Lions were ready to tack on another shortly after.
Penn State held USC to a second consecutive punt, and, of course, the next play McSorley hit Godwin for a juggling 72-yard touchdown throw to move Penn State ahead 35-27.
And no, the Nittany Lions weren’t done.
Two plays later, Darnold tried to fit a pass in on a slant, but Christian Campbell played the ball expertly. The junior cornerback popped the ball loose, and senior linebacker Brandon Bell picked it off, rumbling down to USC’s 3-yard line.
One play is all it took for Penn State to get in for the score — a designed run by McSorley.
In exactly four minutes, 34 seconds of game time, Penn State hung 21 points on USC and led the Trojans 42-27.
But the Nittany Lions collapsed. Seven touchdowns by the Nittany Lions was not enough to stymie the Trojans’ surge.
Regardless, Franklin was gratified with the way his players handled themselves all week.
The result wasn’t in Penn State’s favor, but the 103rd Rose Bowl was the wrap to a season the Nittany Lions will never forget.
“That game just tonight doesn’t define us,” Franklin said. “It’s the whole season. It’s what these guys did. It’s how they persevered. It’s how they loved one another. It’s how they care for one another. I couldn’t be more proud.”