When someone gives you a taste of your own medicine, it’s usually a bitter feeling. For Penn State, it was toxic.
Entering the final quarter of play in Monday night’s Rose Bowl Game between USC and Penn State, the Nittany Lions held a 49-35 lead over the Trojans.
Over the course of the 2016 season, Penn State developed a reputation as the best second-half team in the nation. Statistically, Penn State possessed the second-highest scoring offense in the nation in the fourth quarter of games this season (averaging 11.9 points per fourth quarter).
Penn State’s most notable victories this season had come as a result of the Nittany Lions’ ability to surge late in the second half of games. When Penn State upset then-No. 2 ranked Ohio State on Oct. 22, the Lions outscored the Buckeyes 17-0 in the fourth quarter en route to the victory.
In the Big 10 Championship Game on Dec. 3 against Wisconsin, Penn State found itself trailing 28-7 in the second quarter. Behind a 384-yard, four-touchdown effort from sophomore quarterback Trace McSorely, the Nittany Lions outscored Wisconsin 34-3 in the second half as Penn State went on to defeat the Badgers and clinch the Big 10 crown and a berth to the Rose Bowl.
Roles reversed in the Rose Bowl Game Monday night, as USC went on a furious 17-point run over the final 8:15 of regulation to defeat Penn State for the Rose Bowl Trophy in an instant classic, 52-49.
“These kids that I’ve had the honor to coach, they are the definition of ‘Fight On’,” head coach Clay Helton said. “Whether it was a season or this game, this game just kind of signified what our whole season has been about: Never quit, keep competing, and good things will happen to you.”
The comeback was jumpstarted by a play that, had it not been reviewed, may have never stood and could have altogether shut down USC’s comeback hopes.
Junior wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster hauled in a pass down the sideline with one arm, and he managed to get his foot inbounds on the play. Initially, the 27-yard connection between redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold and Smith-Schuster was ruled incomplete. But after officials reviewed the play, the call was overturned and the play resulted in the Trojans having the ball at the Penn State 3-yard line.
Sophomore running back Ronald Jones II proceeded to run in a three yard touchdown score to cut the Penn State lead to 49-42.
With 8:09 remaining in regulation, Penn State took the field at its own 25-yard line with a touchdown lead. In seven of its last eight possessions at this point in the contest, Penn State scored a touchdown on the USC defense. Trojan defenders were aware of the need for a quick defensive stop.
Without leading tackler sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith, the Trojans proceeded to force a prompt three-and-out and a Penn State punt to get the ball back to the USC offense with 6:41 remaining.
“Those two stops kind of came down to everything that led up to this game, that led up to those two moments going back when you start in the winter in the spring, in the summer,” senior linebacker Michael Hutchings said. “We just took it snap by snap and we were playing for pride. It became apparent each play guys were coming in clutch.”
After both USC and Penn State traded punts late, the Trojan offense, trailing 49-42, started its drive at its own 20-yard line with 1:59 left in the fourth quarter. A pair of pass interference penalties on the Penn State defense during the drive pushed the Trojans offense deep into opposing territory.
With 1:20 remaining in regulation, Darnold found sophomore receiver Deontay Burnett in the end zone for a 27-yard, game-tying touchdown connection.
“Just the player that (Burnett) is, he made a play, and I saw him,” said Darnold regarding the game-tying play.
Tied at 49 with 1:09 remaining in regulation, the USC defense was called to lock down one last time, and it did.
“When the time was right and we had to have a stop, we entrusted them to get it done,” said Helton. “[Coaches were] just asking them to cowboy up one last time, and they did.”
As McSorley attempted to maneuver the Penn State offense to a game-winning score late, he lofted a pass into the USC secondary which was intercepted by USC senior defensive back Leon McQuay III. McQuay returned the interception to the Penn State 33-yard line with 27 seconds remaining in regulation.
After a 5-yard rush from Jones, Darnold spiked the ball and stopped the clock with five seconds remaining; USC offense at the Penn State 28-yard line.
The Trojan special teams unit lined up and redshirt junior kicker Matt Boermeester was set to attempt a 46-yard field goal for the victory.
“I wasn’t concerned about the distance,” Boermeester said. “I knew I was going to get an opportunity to kick that field goal, so wherever it was, I was kicking it. That’s what my thoughts were.”
Boermeester, who had missed two field goals earlier in regulation, proceeded to knock through the Rose Bowl-winning field goal for the Trojans with no time remaining on the clock — 52-49.
USC’s dramatic comeback was fueled by a mixture of offensive heroics — the one-armed reception from Smith-Schuster, Burnett’s game-tying score, the Boermeester kick — and a sturdy, timely performance from the defense late.
The USC defense was able to minimize production from Penn State’s playmakers late at the most crucial points in the contest.
Penn State sophomore running back Saquon Barkley had 183 rushing yards and three total touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) through the first three quarters Monday. The Trojan defense held Barkley scoreless in the fourth quarter, limiting him to 21 yards on the ground over the final period of play.
The USC defense struggled to find an answer for defending Penn State junior receiver Chris Godwin; through the first three quarters, he totaled nine catches for 187 yards and two receiving scores. In the fourth quarter, Godwin did not record a single reception.
Almost instantly, USC’s 17-0 fourth quarter comeback is being regarded as one of the most thrilling finishes in college football history. ESPN broadcaster Chris Fowler, who commentated the nationally-televised game, stated that the 103rd Rose Bowl was “one of the most thrilling.”
Before Monday night’s comeback, USC was 0-15 over the past 10 seasons when trailing by 14 or more points in the fourth quarter of a game, per ESPN Stats and Info. The 52-49 win in Pasadena Monday gave USC its 25th Rose Bowl win in program history.
“What a terrific football game … I think about this group of coaches and kids, and what they’ve been able to accomplish over a season,” Helton said. “To put a stamp on it right here in the ‘Grandaddy of Them All.'”