Penn State had been surging for months relying on big plays from the offense, but that propensity for long passes cost them on their final drive of the Rose Bowl.
With less than a minute remaining and on their own 36-yard line, the Nittany Lions went for it. Quarterback Trace McSorley unloaded a pass 30 yards downfield that was intercepted and returned to Penn State’s 33-yard line, which set up a game-winning field goal for the Trojans.
After the game, James Franklin explained his thinking behind the play calling of that final drive and why he didn’t try to simply run out the clock.
Yeah, you know, obviously there was discussion on the headset to run the ball and play for overtime. That’s not really who we’ve been all year long. We made a play right before the half that the same discussion was going on that we should have went for it or ran the ball. We made a huge play not in this game, but during the season, right before the half. Obviously, you can’t turn the ball over in that situation. I think that’s the difference. We’ve been punting the ball really well, so we felt like with the amount of time left on the clock, let’s try to get a first down right here on third down. If we don’t, we’ll punt the ball. They had no timeouts left, that factored into it. They would have had a long field to go with no timeouts, and we’d been punting the ball well. So that’s really what went into that decision.
Essentially, Franklin trusted his punting and defense enough that the clock wasn’t a worry considering USC had no timeouts. That made him feel equipped to try one more, potentially game-winning play. What he didn’t expect was McSorley throwing his third interception of the game, then having the ball returned back to field goal range.
It’s certainly an understandable rationale of Franklin and one that has worked for Penn State in the past, it might simply be the unfortunate consequence of a decision’s worst-case scenario coming up at the worst possible time. The Nittany Lions lived bravely, and were handed the losing end of an all-time great Rose Bowl for it.