The last game of the season counts toward the final record the same as every game along the way, but it weighs more heavily on the minds of the players and fans as it is the last taste of football for nine months.
Penn State started the game out very unevenly. The opening kickoff of the game scuttled the return plans of freshman running back and kickoff returner Miles Sanders. The left-footed kickoff from USC kicker Matt Boermeester fluttered and dipped before Sanders could get under it, and as a result he was forced to cover the ball on the three yard line. The first play from scrimmage didn’t go much better. Trace McSorley threw the ball deep but his receiver cut the route off short, and as a result it was an easy interception for USC defensive back Iman Marshall. Marshall stepped out of bounds inside the Penn State 35 yard-line on the return.
The Lions regrouped to force a Boermeester field goal attempt from 51 yards. The kick was short and Penn State avoided giving up points on the early mistakes. On the next series PSU had a solid drive going, with Saquon Barkley gaining yardage in chunks. A McSorley pass was tipped into the air and Adoree’ Jackson grabbed it before it fell to the ground. Jackson took the interception and brought it back to the Penn State side of the field.
It didn’t take long for USC to cash in the second interception on two pass attempts from McSorley. Sam Darnold found Deonta Burnett for a 13-yard touchdown to get the scoring started. Penn State was unable to gain a single yard from scrimmage on the ensuing drive, and punted the ball back to the USC 43 yard-line.
The Trojans took the ball and methodically moved toward the end zone, gaining a first and goal from the six yard line. The Lions were able to stiffen up at that point, forcing another field goal attempt from 22 yards. This time Boermeester was true with his left foot, giving USC an early 10-0 lead with 4:42 remaining in the first quarter.
The Lions were unable to get anything going, gaining 9 yards on three plays on the next drive. Blake Gillikin punted the ball deep to the dangerous return man Adoree’ Jackson, who took the punt for a big gain. The play was called back following a blocking in the back penalty.
Once again the Trojans had little trouble matriculating the ball down the field. The drive stalled at the Penn State 27 and Boermeester added a 44-yard field goal. With just 21 seconds left in the first period, USC dominated action but only had a 13 point lead, which was fortunate for Penn State.
The Lion offense came to life on the next possession. Trace McSorley scrambled to buy time to find Chris Godwin, which he did on consecutive plays, moving the ball down the field into USC territory. Saquon Barkley took it from there. On a critical 3rd and 6, Barkley took the hand-off and went right up the middle for a 24-yard touchdown run. The drive went for 70 yards on nine plays in 3:37. Just like that, Penn State cut the lead to 13-7 with 11:44 before halftime.
USC took the ball and went inside the Penn State 5 yard-line quickly on five plays, using a 32 yard pass play to Deonta Burnett. A touchdown was called back due to an illegal block and it appeared that Penn State caught a break. As the Trojans prepared to snap the ball, play was stopped to review the call. After deliberating, the penalty was called off, giving USC a touchdown and a 20-7 lead.
Penn State was not let down. The team showed the resilience that it has all year, coming back with its own quick scoring drive. Chris Godwin caught a 30-yard pass from McSorley to cap a 4-play, 75-yard drive that took just 1:31. With 8:39 left in the first half, the Lions had already weathered several storms.
The Trojans once again answered back quickly, going 75 yards on six plays to gain a two-possession lead, 27-14.
Once again, the Penn State offense refused to give in. McSorley led the team down the field, leaning heavily on Chris Godwin. On a critical third down at the USC 40, Godwin made a miraculous one-handed catch on a poorly thrown ball to keep the drive going. There was two minutes left in the half at the time, and with PSU outside of field goal range, it could have given USC a chance to extend its lead before the half.
Instead Penn State continued the drive, which was capped by a great catch in the end zone by junior tight end Mike Gesicki. The Lions cut the lead to 27-21 with just under a minute left to play in the half.
The Trojans once again stormed down the field, getting the ball to the PSU 31 with two seconds on the clock. Boermeester missed the 48-yard attempt. The only two drives that USC failed to score in the first half were the first and last; both were missed field goals.
The average field position for each team in the first half was heavily in favor of the Trojans, who started on their 39 while PSU started on their own 24.
The second half started much better for the Lions. After allowing a scary-looking 35 yard kickoff return to Adoree’ Jackson, the Lions shut USC down and forced a three and out.
It only took Saquon Barkley one play to get the Lions the lead. Barkley took the hand-off and ran 79 yards into the end zone. The Penn State fans inside of Rose Bowl Stadium were rewarded for their loyalty, as they hung in there, giving the team plenty of noise and support, even though it was tough sledding to this point.
On the next drive the Lions once again responded with a defensive hold. Only a questionable pass interference call on Grant Haley slowed Brent Pry’s defense down. After the penalty, Penn State shut USC down for the second stop in as many tries. On third down, the crowd on PSU’s side filled the stadium with noise.
Chris Godwin got the noise amped up even further on the next play from scrimmage. He caught a 74-yard pass from McSorley to give the Lions a 35-27 lead.
The defense answered the call on the next possession. On the second play from scrimmage Brandon Bell intercepted a pass and took it all the way back to the USC 3 yard line. Trace McSorley took it into the end zone himself on the next play to give PSU a 42-27 lead.
The start of the second half had three consecutive stops by the PSU defense and three touchdowns on three plays by the Lion’s offense. Just as we thought the stadium couldn’t get any louder, it did. But this would not be the pinnacle of the fan’s enthusiasm.
USC got up off the mat on the next possession, taking the ball into Penn State territory quickly, gobbling up chunks of yardage as they did in the first half. Ten plays and 65 yards later, USC scored and added a two-point conversion to get the lead down to 42-35.
Penn State answered with a penalty-aided drive. Twice the Trojans were called for late hits on Trace McSorley, extending the drive. Saquon Barkley caught a 7-yard touchdown pass to put the exclamation point on the 8-play 82-yard drive.
In the first half the Trojans scored on 6 consecutive possessions. Penn State’s touchdown made it seven possessions in a row that ended with 7 points. For the record, counting the Lion’s final offensive play of the first half, Penn State scored on four consecutive offensive plays.
The Lion defense responded once again with a three and out, forcing a USC punt to begin the fourth quarter. On the next play from scrimmage Trace McSorley fumbled and it was ruled on the field that the Trojans recovered the ball. There was a very long delay while the referees reviewed which team recovered the football. It appeared initially that a Penn State player had the ball on the ground and was touched. After review, that was the call and PSU maintained possession. The play kept the ball out of the hands of the Trojans but Penn State was forced to punt one play later.
While it appeared that Penn State was rolling, it would only record one more first down in three possessions for the remainder of the game. USC scored 17 consecutive points in the fourth quarter, including a heart-breaking field goal as time expired to win the game 52-49.
On the final Penn State possession, with the game tied at 49 and less than 30 seconds remaining in the game, the team elected to try a risky pass on third and 5 to keep the drive alive, playing for the win. The move backfired, as Leon McQuay intercepted the pass and ran it back into Penn State territory, well within the range of Matt Boermeester. Had Penn State elected to try to gain the first down with a run play, the clock would have expired if PSU was short of the yardage, and the teams would have gone to overtime. It’s easy to second-guess after the fact. Coaches Franklin and Moorhead had so much success this season that it is understandable why they took that option.
It’s hard to call this a disappointing loss, but the team and fans were deflated, as expected, following the game. In time, maybe in just a few days, the sting of the loss should wear off and Penn State fans will be able to remember that this season was an amazing ride.
After the game it was clear that the team and coaches were feeling the sting. Their voices were hushed and it was all they could do to hold in their emotions. Truth be told, a majority of the players in the locker room had tears in their eyes.
Here is Chris Godwin on his performance:
You can hear the disappointment in his voice. Here is what Godwin had to say about his plans on coming back to the team next season.