At the expense of sounding like a broken record, I will underscore how unlikely the road to Pasadena was for these Nittany Lions. A little before 7:00 PM on September 24th, many were wondering if Penn State would win enough to make a bowl game. Almost exactly a week later, chants of “fire Franklin” could transparently be heard through the broadcast. One half, and eight games later, Penn State found itself in the Grandaddy of ‘Em All, facing off against the same team it last saw in the Rose Bowl.
For about a month, we’ve heard a consistent narrative that painted a bleak picture for these Nittany Lions. If any team has been hotter than Penn State to end the season, it was this USC team. The Trojans’ secondary was substantially better than anything Penn State had seen to date. Sam Darnold does not make mistakes. Adoree’ Jackson is dangerous on special teams. This USC team has too much firepower on offense, and is too good on defense, to let Penn State perform anywhere near at the level it had been. And on it went as it got closer and closer to the game.
For a good long while, it appeared as if we should have believed the pundits. Trace McSorley started the first two drives for Penn State by throwing two interceptions, and almost getting a third on the third drive. USC, on the other hand, looked like the team we’re accustomed to seeing in blue and white. Sam Darnold avoided pressure, kept drives alive, and continued to keep the Trojan offense moving regardless of circumstance. In a game eerily similar to the Big Ten Championship game, Penn State quickly found itself on a two-score hole before the offense finally woke up.
Down 13-0 in the second quarter, McSorley finally started using his shiftiness to punish USC’s over pursuit, finding Chris Godwin on two key third down plays, then letting Saquon Barkley do the rest. After that, the Lions and Trojans made it a shootout, driving down the field on each possession until halftime.
Luckily, unlike the game against Wisconsin, the Lions didn’t have to overcome much to get the lead in the second half. Down only six, and with a rested defense, Brent Pry’s adjustments finally started to take place, and the Penn State defense started clamping down on a USC offense that didn’t punt once in the first half. After a quick Trojan 3 and out, the Nittany Lion offense picked up where it left off, and suddenly it was USC who found themselves in a hole. It only took one Saquon Barkley run for 79 yards, and Penn State had taken the lead in the third quarter. But the Lions weren’t done. Godwin, not to be outdone by Barkley, caught a 72-yard pass of his own to score. After USC’s first turnover of the game, Penn State went up 15. After that, it was USC who had to play from behind for the rest of the game.
The script could not have been written any better. Penn State did what it’s done all season. They looked terrible to start, overcame a ton of mistakes and a lead from an opponent (making everyone think Penn State isn’t as good as they really are in the process), then came back in the second half and did what they’ve always done. This time around, however, it didn’t work out for Penn State.
For a second, I wanted Penn State to start fast and finish fast for once. And after the way they started the game, I was ready to fall in the same pit of despair I fell in after Wisconsin went up 28-7. The talk that this USC team is better than anyone Penn State has faced this season was getting to me, and I admittedly started to worry. And then the Nittany Lions slapped some sense into me. Why was I so worried? Haven’t I seen this team game after game, deficit after deficit, just find ways to put the pedal to the metal, time after time? And why, for the love of all things cute, would I have it any other way?
There’s nothing left to prove for these Lions. Doubted all season, called lucky time after time, passed over for the playoff by a team who failed to score, a touchdown underdog in this game, and they never gave up. Enjoy the offseason Lions, you’ve earned it.
Three Key Takeaways
1) Penn State is the best team in the Big Ten. - For those of you who linger, Penn State left no doubt after this game that they, and only they, are the best team in the Big Ten this season.
2) This might be a preview of what’s to come. - These two teams are young, and only stand to get better. Could they possibly meet again in the 2017 postseason?
3) James Franklin is a good coach. - Refer to Point 1.
College Football Playoff. January 1st, 2018 at the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual.