PASADENA, Calif. — It was a surreal scene for Penn State fans at the end of one of the craziest games in the history of the program.
There were confetti cannons showering Penn State fans at the North end of the iconic Rose Bowl Stadium. There were players celebrating in jubilation in front of them.
It was the wrong players, though. After Southern Cal kicker Matt Boermeester connected on a 46-yard field goal as time expired, the Trojans spilled onto the field in joy, while stunned Penn State fans were still trying to process what just happened.
USC 52, Penn State 49.
This outcome hurts, and the emotion will probably linger for a while. That shouldn’t diminish what transpired Monday night at this iconic place. This was an all-timer, a game people who watched it will remember for a long time. Someone had to lose, but there were no real losers.
“I’ll look back on it right now,” sophomore RB Saquon Barkley said when asked if he’ll be able to look back at this day more positively in the future. “We put on a show. Credit to USC — Adoree Jackson is the real deal, JuJu Smith(-Schuster) is the real deal. All of those guys are the real deal.
“We put on a show, 52-49. Probably one of the best games this year. Probably one of the best Rose Bowl games out of 103 games. When we reflect back on this, yeah we will be upset that we lost, but we came out here and we fought. We fought hard, but we just didn’t finish.”
For the Penn State players, this has to be one of the toughest losses of their lives. Senior S Malik Golden said it was the first time he ever cried after a loss. Coach James Franklin broke down during the postgame news conference.
Barkley’s face also showed signs of very recent tears. QB Trace McSorley was very critical of his own performance in the locker room afterward.
Eventually, the emotions will fade. Highlights from this contest will be replayed in hype videos for years.
This was an incredible football game. McSorley started slow, but eventually accounted for 5 touchdowns. He made maybe his best throw of the season on a 30-yard touchdown to Chris Godwin, a ball that traveled 47 yards in the air that he threw while in full sprint near the sideline.
Barkley was awesome, collecting 249 total yards and kickstarting his 2017 Heisman Trophy campaign with a zig-zagging 79-yard touchdown run that six Trojans defenders are still trying to figure out how they didn’t corral him.
Then there was Godwin. He’s clearly Penn State’s best wide receiver, but the offensive system typically spreads the ball around. Not today.
Godwin finished with 9 catches for 187 yards and 2 touchdowns. He made a half-dozen fantastic catches, including a one-handed snare on a pass behind him that didn’t seem possible at first glance.
Southern Cal’s skill players were awesome, as well. There were 102 Rose Bowls before this one, and Sam Darnold became the first quarterback to throw 5 touchdown passes in one. Jackson, Smith-Schuster, Deontay Burnett … they were all electrifying.
This game was captivating, incredible entertainment with offensive play at the highest of levels.
“There’s obviously a lot of raw emotion right now, there is a lot of hurt going on, and that’s natural,” Franklin said. “But these guys should have their chin held high, their chest out, because what we’ve been able to accomplish this year from the beginning to the end is really the story. I mean, tonight obviously was a small sample in what may have been the most exciting Rose Bowl game ever. But that really — that game just tonight really doesn’t define us. It’s the whole season. It’s what these guys did. It’s how they persevered.
“I couldn’t be more proud. I know this probably sounds crazy, but I wouldn’t be any more proud sitting here tonight with a win. I couldn’t be any more proud of our guys.”
There will be plenty to dissect this offseason from this game. Penn State started too slow and couldn’t finish after seven straight touchdown drives in the middle.
The Nittany Lions turned the ball over too much. They got a little conservative in the fourth quarter when the score was 49-35, then probably could have been less aggressive in the final minute.
Penn State probably needed a breather, a few minutes to collect itself and reset for overtime. Players on both sides of the ball were short on lung power.
There is little to quibble with in the big picture about this game, and this season, for the Nittany Lions. Southern Cal had loads of NFL talent, national championship contender talent, on that roster. Penn State proved it belonged in a game of this magnitude.
Too many people spent too much time in the middle of this fantastic football game talking about the College Football Playoff on social media. Southern Cal and Penn State are two of the best teams in the country. If the Playoff was eight teams instead of four, maybe both of these teams are in it.
These two teams could see each other again next year, 364 days from now at this exact location. The Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2018 is a College Football Playoff semifinal game.
“Don’t forget about it,” Barkley said. “That feeling, when the confetti started to come out and USC stormed the field. Don’t forget about that feeling you had in your stomach, that disgusting taste you in your mouth. That’s the way you have to do it. You have to use that to motivate you, challenge each other.
“Obviously the outcome wasn’t what we wanted it to be, but the guys coming back have to grow and learn from it.”