Penn State Football

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Penn State’s 52-49 loss to USC in epic Rose Bowl

James Franklin explains what cost Penn State the Rose Bowl

James Franklin discussed what went wrong for Penn State against USC in the Rose Bowl. The Trojans beat the Nittany Lions 52-49.
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James Franklin discussed what went wrong for Penn State against USC in the Rose Bowl. The Trojans beat the Nittany Lions 52-49.

In the 100-plus years of “The Granddaddy of Them All” there wasn’t a higher-scoring tilt than the one witnessed on Monday evening.

A remarkable 101 combined points — 18 more than the second-most prolific Rose Bowl — was scored between Penn State and Southern California, and while the Nittany Lions wished they had 52 instead of 49, they took part in what will go down as one of the greatest games in college football bowl history.

“Oh, what a terrific game,” USC coach Clay Helton said moments after Matt Boermeester’s 46-yard, game-winning field goal split the uprights. “It was just two really, really good football teams playing at the highest level and competing until the absolute end.”

Penn State coach James Franklin concurred, saying the 103rd edition might’ve been “the most exciting Rose Bowl game ever.”

There was so much that happened and so many plays that might get overlooked, but after watching the game again, here are a few thoughts.


▪  Boy oh boy did Chris Godwin have a day. One-handed catches, tip-toe snares, and juggling grabs — you name it, and Godwin somehow pulled it off.

His final stat line of nine catches, 187 yards and two touchdowns are all Penn State bowl records, as the two scores tied Bobby Engram’s double-up in the 1996 Outback Bowl.

What led to those stats was his reliability. Trace McSorley settled in, thanks in large part to Godwin’s sure-handedness, snagging balls over the middle with defensive backs draped all over him.

If the junior decides to forgo his senior season and head to the NFL Draft, no one ought to blame him after that performance. He put on a better show than the Rose Parade.

▪  On the other side was Deontay Burnett, the overshadowed wideout who burned Penn State time and time again.

With all the pregame focus on JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, the sophomore out of Compton proved to have the biggest impact. He had 13 catches for 164 yards and three touchdowns.

Burnett’s previous career-high was seven catches for 93 yards against Arizona State on Oct. 1, and he entered the Rose Bowl with four touchdowns on the year.

Burnett nearly matched that against the Nittany Lions.

▪  His 79-yard touchdown will be a lasting memory, but even outside of that breathtaking run, Saquon Barkley had a stellar day. If you take away that score, Barkley averaged 5.9 yards per offensive touch (24 carries for 115 yards, 5 catches for 55 yards).

It’s still hard to believe he’s only a sophomore, but just when you think you’ve seen his best run, the Coplay native hits you with a Rose Bowl doozy.

Fully expect Barkley to be a top-five preseason contender for the Heisman Trophy.

▪  It was a shame to see senior linebacker Brandon Bell go down with a wrist injury and have to leave his final college game early, but what an impact he made.

On what turned out to be his last play at Penn State, the New Jersey native hauled in a pass tipped by Christian Campbell and rumbled down to USC’s 3-yard line. It set up a touchdown run by McSorley, giving Penn State a 42-27 lead.

Bell had to watch from afar as the Nittany Lion defense slipped up late against Sam Darnold and the Trojans, but that play — and his career — won’t soon be forgotten.


▪  DeAndre Thompkins had a rough game.

On Penn State’s first play — an interception by McSorley throwing to Thompkins — it was hard to tell who was in the wrong. The quarterback chucked it deep, but the wideout ran a 12-yard curl.

Many would defer to the quarterback who hadn’t thrown an interception in 101 passes being right over the guy filling in for suspended starter Saeed Blacknall, but we’re not in the offensive meetings to know exactly what the miscommunication was.

However, the second interception was on Thompkins. McSorley threw it behind him a bit, but the redshirt sophomore wideout got two hands on it.

That could’ve been caught.

▪  And with that in mind, DaeSean Hamilton wasn’t targeted a single time. Not once.

Here’s a guy coming off a dominant Big Ten Championship game (eight catches, 118 yards), and he doesn’t see the ball at all?

After the game, Hamilton retweeted a post by 49ers wideout Torrey Smith saying, “Find me a WR who kills it with 3-4 targets a game.”

Coincidence, or frustrated wideout?


▪  I know Penn State was trying to kill some clock after dropping 28 points on the Trojans in the third, but you could count on two hands and a foot how many yards the Nittany Lions had in the fourth quarter — and with one digit to spare.

The Nittany Lions managed only 14 offensive yards in the fourth quarter.


▪  USC’s final touchdown drive was too easy. Darnold connected for completions of 11 and 12 yards before heaving it deep twice, and the Nittany Lion secondary crumbled.

On the first deep throw, Penn State cornerback Jordan Smith was called for interference, as he failed to turn around and play the ball, blatantly knocking the receiver out of the play.

Then it happened again, this time to Grant Haley.

Next play, Darnold found Burnett for a game-tying 27-yard score.

It’s understandable to not want to give up a big play, but if Smith and Haley read the receivers’ eyes and played the ball rather than the man, who knows if USC gets down the field to knot things up.

▪  Penn State’s defensive backs, who were getting bodied up by USC’s larger receivers all evening, didn’t have much help.

According to Penn State’s official box score, the Nittany Lions did not record a sack on Darnold, just the third game all season in which they didn’t take down the quarterback. The other two games were at Pittsburgh and at Michigan, all losses for Penn State.

The front four was working hard, and defensive coordinator Brent Pry dialed up pressure, but Darnold’s confidence grew throughout the game.

The redshirt freshman played like a senior, either getting the ball out in less than two seconds or scrambling to buy time for receivers downfield.

The future first-round pick at quarterback had his way, turning in arguably the best Rose Bowl performance by a quarterback and dashing Penn State’s hopes of a 12-win season.

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9