Would Penn State have made a better show against Clemson? Probably. At their apex, the Nittany Lions of 2016 are — OK, were — a Big Ten team with Pac-12 metrics. An East Coast power flashing West Coast hip hop. Oregon in monochrome.
The Penn State of Quarters 2 and 3 in the 2017 Rose Bowl would’ve destroyed anything in its path. The Lions ran only three plays in their first three possessions of the second half, and all were keepers:
- Saquon Barkley, 79-yard touchdown run
- Chris Godwin, 72-yard touchdown catch
- Trace McSorley, 3-yard touchdown run
Penn State averaged 2.55 points per play in the third quarter. Not 2.55 points per period. Not 2.55 points per possession. 2.55 points per PLAY.
But then you have Quarters 1 and 4, and it was back to the team that gave up a gazillion yards to Pitt and huffed and puffed to hold off Temple. The Lions were outscored 30-0 in the first 15 and the last 15 in Pasadena — which is why USC 52, Penn State 49 felt less like an instant classic and more like “Dr. Strangelove” with bits of “Casablanca” haphazardly spliced into the middle, then back to “Dr. Strangelove” again.
And if you don’t believe us, there’s always the drive chart:
Pick, Pick, Punt, Punt, Touchdown, Touchdown, Touchdown, Touchdown, Touchdown, Touchdown, Touchdown, Punt, Punt, Punt, Pick.
Did we say “Casablanca?”
We meant “Psycho.”
At any rate: Better show in the College Football Playoff? Sure.
A better matchup?
Because in a weird way, Monday night along the Arroyo Seco summed up the campaign for James Franklin and his Lions (11-3) as a whole: When the Big Ten champs were good, they were very, very, very, very good. Insanely good. Beating Ohio State and decimating Iowa good.
And when they were bad, it was Michigan 49, Penn State 10 on a loop, a nightmare played over and over again with creepy calliope music tinkling in the background. And clowns.
In the middle of it all was Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold (453 passing yards), doing his best Norman Bates in the fourth quarter, slicing and dicing, completing all 10 of his throws over the final stanza and showing the kind of iron will — and perhaps a steely sense of denial, given the chaos unfolding around him — to match that bazooka of a right arm.
— Brad Crawford (@BCrawford247) January 3, 2017
His counterpart, McSorley, (254 passing yards, 4 touchdown passes) was nearly there, squint for squint in the gunslinger staredown, overcoming a 1-for-6 start, 2 interceptions, and a 13-0 deficit right out of the chute.
It wasn’t so much a game as a virtual reality experiment, a point-a-minute game of Madden touched by a magic fairy and brought to real, flesh-and-blood, 3-dimensional life.
How else do you explain Barkley’s 194 rushing yards, 55 receiving yards, and 3 scores?
— YUBINATOR (@YoYubinator) January 3, 2017
How else do you explain the schizophrenia?
Good Lions. Bad Lions.
Two sides. Same coin.
Good Lions are — were? — a bunch that a Sid Gillman or a Bill Walsh would adore, always pushing downfield, always stretching. Penn State on Monday became the first team in the history of the Rose Bowl, the Granddaddy, to record two touchdowns of 71 yards or more.
The trouble, of course, is that Bad Lions always seem to tag along, always feel as if they could turn up at any moment, Mr. Hyde lurking around the corner.
Bad Lions don’t tackle. Bad Lions aren’t quite sure where the ball is once the quarterback releases it. Bad Lions let the offensive line’s old cracks, seemingly papered over in the final 33 minutes against a wild Wisconsin front, start to fester again.
Good Lions open holes.
Bad Lions open wounds.
Good Lions never punt.
Bad Lions never stop.
Good Lions break records.
Bad Lions break hearts.
Good Lions push boundaries.
Bad Lions push their luck.
Penn State is young, hungry and got its mojo back this fall, substance to match the swagger. The final chapter was heartbreak, but it didn’t change the season’s narrative of a phoenix rising, finally, from ashes self-induced.
Even the rough edges are fun. McSorley rolls with a Brett Favre/Ken Stabler moxie, which means no opponent’s lead is safe. Of course, it also means no opponent deficit is insurmountable. Testing USC safety Leon McQuay III deep up the right boundary once, with 49 seconds left in a tie game, was worth the risk.
Testing him on the very next play, 8 seconds later? Pure hubris.
McQuay’s 32-yard interception return brought the ball to the Penn State 33 and brought the Lions’ hopes to their knees. McSorley is used to living dangerously; it’s part of his game, part of the charm. But when you play with fire long enough, the flames usually find a way to get theirs back. Eventually.