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Another Look: Penn State’s Rose Bowl Performance

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Now that a day has passed, let’s take another look at how Penn State fared in its Rose Bowl loss.

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NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I re-watched Penn State vs USC twice, and since I’m a blogger, I wrote over 2,000 words about some of the significant plays and moments.

First Quarter

  • Starting with the kickoff, not a great start for the Nittany Lions. Not sure what happened that caused Miles Sanders to misjudge the ball, but Penn State was lucky to just keep possession.
  • Next play, Trace McSorley and DeAndre Thompkins have a miscommunication that leads to USC’s first turnover. Looks like Thompkins was running a curl route just beyond the sticks, meanwhile McSorley was throwing it as a go route. Pointing out the obvious, but not a great start.
  • We’ll talk more about the defense as the game goes on, but despite giving up 52 points, this unit had a decent enough day, especially in the first quarter when USC could have broken out into a four-possession lead.
  • First carry of the game for Saquon Barkley, and you could just tell it was going to be one of those days. I wrote about this in the lead up to the game, but the thought of a rested, healthy Barkley is what gave me confidence in Penn State despite being the underdogs.
  • McSorley’s second pass — or rather, his second interception — clearly wasn’t thrown perfectly, but that’s a ball Thompkins needs to catch. No. 3 has otherwise had a very strong year, so it’s unfortunate that his 2016 season will mostly be remembered for the early Rose Bowl game mistakes.
  • This will be a theme for USC’s offense, but they really did a tremendous job on third downs; 8-of-15 on the day. And more specifically, on third-and-longs. On the drive following McSorley’s second pick, the Trojans convert on a third-and-10, keeping alive a drive that would later lead to Sam Darnold’s first touchdown.
  • On that touchdown play, you just have to chalk it up to USC wide receiver Deontay Burnett finding the soft spot in the zone. Believe Marcus Allen might have been just a little slow to react there — and it would have been nicer if Brandon Bell dropped back a bit deeper — but that’s just a good play from Burnett. Oh, and that Darnold kid, too.
  • When thinking of “what if” plays, one that sticks out in my mind was Brandon Smith’s bobble-dropped interception on second-and-goal. That would have saved Penn State three points and swings the momentum in the Nittany Lions’ favor.
  • Skipping ahead to USC’s next drive, and the Trojans get away with a pretty clear block in the back on the reverse flea flicker.

Second Quarter

  • Huge play for the Nittany Lions: McSorley hitting Chris Godwin to convert on third-and-8 in the beginning of the second quarter. Opened things up in the passing game.
  • And then following, we have a patented McSorley scramble, throwing backwards completion to Godwin for another first down. Thought the offensive line had a good day, but a lot of the mistakes were minimized by McSorley’s ability to throw on the run.
  • Barkley’s first touchdown run — good grief. Great blocks by Connor McGovern and Brian Gaia to open up the hole, but Barkley’s explosion past the USC safeties is what made that run.
  • I don’t ever want to hear about McSorley’s lack of arm strength because that boy — while on the run — tossed a ball 45-plus yards to Godwin for a touchdown. Incredible play.
  • And let’s talk about Penn State’s third touchdown while we’re here: McSorley to Gesicki. USC obviously game planned to not allow Gesicki to beat them, but heck of a catch by No. 88 to put the Lions on the board. He’s also perfected the push off; enough to allow himself to gain separation, but not enough to get called for pass interference.
  • Big win for Penn State to head into the locker room only down 27-21, instead of 30-21. With the way the Nittany Lions’ offense was churning, any type of defensive stop was a big victory.

Third Quarter

  • Credit to Penn State’s special teams because although there were some moments of concern, they did a fantastic job containing Adoree’ Jackson. And while Charles Huff deserves a lot of credit because you can tell by his reactions how much work he must put in with this unit, this is all about the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s — Juwan Johnson, Ayron Monroe, Troy Apke, Christian Campbell, Koa Farmer, Nick Scott, etc. Those sanctions years really took a toll on special teams, but finally Penn State has some really talented dudes out there.
  • Huge three-and-out stop by the defense to open up the second half. Curtis Cothran made a very nice play on second down to stop the run, and Jordan Smith — who had strong coverage all day — was hip-to-hip with a USC wide receiver downfield on third down.
  • There aren’t words to do justice for what Saquon Barkley did on his 79-yard touchdown run. Like, look at this thing and look at the screen grabs. How did he score a touchdown? Absolutely incredible. I respect the differing opinions of those in the college football world, but Barkley is the best running back in the country in 2017 and that can’t be argued. I really can’t wait to see what he does next season with; A. What should be a balanced offensive attack now that teams respect the passing game, and B. An improved, stronger offensive line.
  • Following defensive series, John Reid makes two great pass breakups. You want to talk about underrated players, he’s one of the very best cornerbacks in the country. Did you know he built a computer?
  • Malik Golden had a hot and cold day in pass defense, but man, he made a couple of tackles up near the line of scrimmage that were impressive. Overall, a solid day for him and really a solid season for him, too.
  • When Trace hit Godwin to make it 35-27, I can tell you it was straight pandemonium in my living room.
  • Surprisingly I haven’t mentioned this yet, but what a day for Godwin going against one of the best corners in college football in Iman Marshall. Would love to get No. 12 back for one final season, but unfortunately, I think the NFL will be calling his name.
  • Christian Campbell had probably the roughest day among the secondary, but terrific play by him and then for Brandon Bell to run it down to the three-yard line. At this point, I think we were all in disbelief. I mean, I know Penn State was a second half team, but what in the world was happening?!
  • My heart goes out to Bell. Hate to see any player leave his last football game injured, especially this guy, who dealt with nagging injuries constantly throughout his career. And unfortunately for Penn State, the defense wouldn’t be the same without him.
  • McSorley punches it in on a nice play call by Joe Moorhead. Nittany Lions up 42-27 with just 10:26 left to play...oh wait, it’s still only the third quarter?
  • USC forced into a third-and-10, and it makes a perfect play call, executing a screen play to perfection. Trojans needed that one, as it helped them go onto score another touchdown.
  • Sneaky big play in the game: USC’s two-point conversion. If Darnold’s slip is actually a fall and he’s ruled down, the Trojans trail by nine points instead of just a touchdown. Turns into 49-33, forcing USC to convert on two two-point conversions. Would have been a whole different ballgame then.
  • Penn State’s following drive, the Nittany Lions answer with some help from two USC personal foul penalties. Also, Penn State gets some a lot of help from the refs on the McSorley-to-Barkley touchdown pass, as Gaia was five-yards beyond the line of scrimmage run blocking. Very obvious illegal man downfield that wasn’t called.
  • End of the third quarter, Penn State gets another defensive three-and-out. Nittany Lions will get the ball back to start the fourth quarter up by 14 points, and have scored touchdowns on seven consecutive possessions. That stings to type out knowing what came next.

Fourth Quarter

  • There’s some people saying the Nittany Lions got conservative in the fourth quarter, and while that may be true to a point, I don’t think it was as blatant as some people are making it. Run with Barkley, McSorley gets sacked (fumbled, recovered by USC, reviewed and overturned), and then another run with Barkley because at that point I think Penn State was just happy to punt the ball. Conservative? Here, sure. But I can’t say I disagreed with it at the time or even now.
  • Speaking of McGovern’s recovery, USC fans had every right to be very mad about that. Even if those are the “rules” and the right call was made, I know if the shoe was on the other foot, I would have been livid. Just my two cents.
  • Blake Gillkin...love you, kid.
  • Perhaps the biggest “what if” play — Cabinda’s near-sack of Darnold on third-and-6. If that’s a sack, or even an incompletion, USC is punting the ball away with 11:27 remaining. Instead, the Trojans are then able drive down the field for a touchdown.
  • Let’s give some credit to the USC offensive line. No matter what Brent Pry tried to do, those big guys up front allowed Darnold a ton of time to throw. Hats off to them, because as James Franklin pointed out in his press conference, they were real difference makers.
  • Let’s also give credit to Darnold. Penn State’s secondary got beat badly a couple times, but the large majority of Darnold’s 453 passing yards were throws that simply beat good coverage. This wasn’t Mark Sanchez firing to wide open receivers, this was a dude who was dropping the ball into tight spaces.
  • Back on offense, Penn State goes: run with Barkley, McSorley (flushed from pocket) one-yard pass to Thompkins, and then McSorley and Godwin aren’t on the same page on a go route. Godwin was one-on-one, had the USC defender beat, but McSorley’s pass was too much of a line drive. If it had a little more air under it, it probably allows Godwin an extra half-second to find the ball, and that very well could have been six. So conservative? Not really.
  • Big stop defensively, as the Nittany Lions force a USC punt with under 4 minutes to go.
  • Barkley scoots 10 yards on second down and picks up a massive first down. On the next second down, Barkley has another strong run, picking up 6 yards. Third-and-4, and Penn State calls for another run, but Barkley is stuffed for a loss of 5 yards. USC uses its last timeout with 2:08 remaining.
  • Is that conservative? Yes, it is. But was it the wrong call? At the time, I had no problem with it. Still don’t. It’s easy to say in retrospect that they should have thrown it on third down, but it wasn’t like Barkley had been getting completely stuffed. He had just had runs of 10 and 6 yards. So with the way Barkley was playing, it’s hard to argue against handing him the ball when they only needed 4 yards.
  • Defense proceeds to get absolutely shredded. Tie ballgame, leaving Penn State with 1:20 left.
  • Run with Barkley on first down and see if something is there — nope. Second down, Gesicki was open, but McSorley couldn’t step into the throw, allowing Leon McQuay III time to nearly pick it off. And then on third down, Penn State went for the win in regulation. Looked like it was all go routes — which is questionable — but at the end of the day, McSorley just threw it up for Godwin, thinking Godwin would make the play. Unfortunately, he didn’t.

Final Thoughts

This was a disappointing loss, there’s no way around it. Being up by two touchdowns going into the fourth quarter, and then not being able to make the plays to win, it flat out sucks. But it’s still important to remember that Penn State played a very good game. In losses, the mistakes are magnified, but the Nittany Lions played at an elite level on Monday night. Unfortunately, they just happened to be playing another great team that made one more play. That’s sports, folks.

Whether this would have been a win or a loss, Penn State is going to be able to take a lot from this game. This is a young coaching staff and team that has never been on this big of a stage before and performed incredibly. Conor McGregor’s coach, John Kavanagh, has a book out titled “Win or Learn”, and as cliche as that sounds, it’s true. Whether it’s things to work on in the offseason like becoming a more consistent, efficient offense that isn’t so reliant upon chunk plays, or even if it’s longterm changes to recruiting bigger cornerbacks, James Franklin can use this loss for the betterment of the program.

We all know how special this season has been, so it’s disappointing that it was capped off by a heartbreaking defeat. But, for me, when you look at this team and what it returns in 2017 and beyond, this doesn’t feel like a window is closing. This truly feels like it’s just the beginning.