PASADENA, Calif. — Penn State lived up to its reputation as a big-play offense.
It also made a couple of costly mistakes.
Trace McSorley threw three interceptions, and the fifth-ranked Nittany Lions blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter of a wild 52-49 loss to No. 9 Southern California in the Rose Bowl on Monday.
“For us to come back, climb back like we did and not finish like we know we can, it hurts,” McSorley said while slumped over in his chair in the Penn State locker room, wearing the same blank expression as his teammates around the room.
After falling behind by 13 points on three separate occasions in the first half, Penn State scored on four consecutive plays during the second and third quarters.
After tight end Mike Gesicki caught an 11-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of the first half, Saquan Barkley scored on a 79-yard run to start the third quarter and give Penn State a 28-27 lead.
Barkley, who said during the week leading up to the game that he admired former USC star Reggie Bush, delivered an ankle-breaking run that echoed Bush’s memorable performance in the same stadium against UCLA in 2004, shedding tackles and juking Trojans while darting across the field.
Chris Godwin then caught a 72-yard touchdown pass the next time Penn State touched the ball, keeping his concentration after USC cornerback Iman Marshall tipped the ball into the air.
Finally, McSorley scored on a 3-yard run after linebacker Brandon Bell intercepted Southern California’s Sam Darnold, capping a sequence Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead had never seen or heard of in major college football.
“No, that would be a first,” Moorhead said.
Barkley scored on a 7-yard reception with 1:55 left in the third quarter, giving Penn State a 49-35 lead, but the Nittany Lions had just one first down the rest of the game.
“We were able to get three scores on one-play drives each right in a row,” said McSorley, who threw for 254 yards and rushed for a touchdown. “Credit to USC, they kept fighting. They didn’t let that knock them off. They kept clawing. We had opportunities to put the game away.”
After USC tied it with 1:20 remaining, Penn State coach James Franklin debated whether to play for the win in regulation or move on to overtime. Franklin decided to embrace what had served his team so well on its unexpected march to the Big Ten title, saying that running out the clock is “not really who we’ve been all year long.”
“We made a play right before the half that the same discussion was going on,” Franklin said.
But McSorley tried to force the ball to Gesicki and Godwin down the field on consecutive plays. USC safety Leon McQuay came across the field and nearly intercepted the first throw. On the second, McQuay came away with the ball and returned it 32 yards to help set up Matt Boermeester’s 46-yard field goal as time expired.
McSorley was hoping Godwin could make a play like he had all game long, finishing with nine receptions for 187 yards and two TDs, instead of working through the play’s progressions as designed.
“I tried too much to force it to Chris,” McSorley said. “He’d been making plays for us all game, so that was kind of the guy in my mind.”
In addition to Godwin’s performance, Barkley rushed for 194 yards and two touchdowns and had 55 yards on five receptions. Penn State averaged 7.5 yards per play in the highest-scoring Rose Bowl ever played.
None of that mattered to McSorley, not after his last pass.
“I got to be better,” McSorley said.
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