The Penn State and USC players’ trip to Disneyland last week as part of the Rose Bowl festivities turned out to foreshadow the game to come. Much like a roller-coaster at a theme park, the game had its ups and downs for both teams. In a nail-biting finish, the Trojans defeated the Nittany Lions 52–49 on a last-second field goal in the 103rd Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
The game started with USC dominating the first quarter. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley threw two interceptions on his first two pass attempts, allowing the Trojans to jump out to a 13–0 lead after the first quarter.
Penn State has been recognized for being a second-half team, but in this game, the Nittany Lions began to come back in the second quarter. McSorley settled down and led his team to three touchdowns to keep the game competitive. At halftime, USC led 27–21.
The third quarter felt like it was dominated by a different Penn State team than the one that took the field in the first half. The Nittany Lions scored touchdowns on each of their four possessions. The first three touchdowns occurred on consecutive offensive plays: a 79-yard touchdown run by running back Saquon Barkley, a 72-yard touchdown catch by Chris Godwin, and a three-yard rushing touchdown by McSorley.
At this point, Penn State had jumped out to a 42–27 lead, and it appeared the Nittany Lions were cruising to victory. But USC continued to battle, and the third quarter ended with Penn State leading 49–35.
The fourth quarter was a pivotal chapter in the game. Just when it appeared that Penn State was taking control, USC responded with 17 unanswered points, including a last-second 46-yard field goal by kicker Matt Boermeester.
“I wasn’t concerned about the distance,” he said after the game. “I knew I was going to get an opportunity to kick that field goal, so wherever it was at, I was kicking it.”
USC defensive back Leon McQuay III’s interception with 27 seconds left in the game set up Boermeester’s kick. Penn State fans were stunned, and Trojans fans were ecstatic.
USC linebacker Michael Hutchings summarized the fourth quarter: “The score was close, but we knew we still had a chance, and there was a lot of time left. We just took it snap by snap, and we were playing for pride. It became apparent each play [that] guys were coming in clutch.”
Said Trojans coach Clay Helton, “Whether it was a season or this game, this game kind of just signified what our whole season has been, about never quit, keep competing, and good things will happen to you if you do.”
The Rose Bowl offensive and defensive players of the game were USC QB Sam Darnold, and defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. Darnold passed for 453 yards and five touchdowns, while Tu’ikolovatu led the team with eight tackles.
For Penn State, McSorley ended the game with 254 passing yards and four touchdowns but threw three interceptions. Godwin was Penn State’s leading receiver, with nine catches, 187 yards, and two touchdowns. Barkley was another standout offensive player, rushing for 194 yards on 25 carries.
Despite the loss, the Nittany Lions were still optimistic about their program’s future.
“Obviously, this loss sucks, but use it was motivation in the off-season,” Barkley said at the post-game press conference. “We were so close to being Rose Bowl Game champs, and we still have so much work to do. We’re still a young team with a lot of guys coming back, so use that as motivation and try to be the best team we can be next year.”
This Rose Bowl will go down as an all-time classic.
Photographs by (from top): Stephen Dunn/Getty Images; Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images