PASADENA, Calif. — There will be a day where Penn State wide receiver Chris Godwin appreciates the 103rd Rose Bowl.
The magnificent contrast between fans clad in blue and white and those in cardinal and gold on college football’s most picturesque stage, the white-knuckle thrill ride that took 4 hours, 12 minutes to complete, the array of spectacular catches he made from a deflected 72-yard touchdown to a one-handed snag of a ball thrown behind him with three defenders around him.
But it wasn’t Monday, not moments after the No. 5 Nittany Lions came up on the wrong end of a 52-49 loss to No. 9 USC in a game that more than lived up to the Rose Bowl’s moniker as the Granddaddy of Them All (see Instant Replay).
Godwin stood stone faced with a towel draped over his head, answering questions thoughtfully but quietly about his nine-catch, 187-yard, two-touchdown performance that helped stake Penn State (11-3) a 49-35 lead with 1:55 remaining in the third quarter. He was more concerned about what followed, the inability to come up with another score or enough first downs to put the game away and deny USC (10-3) the comeback that followed.
“We’re always confident at any point in the game, but as a receiver when you’re up two touchdowns you’d like to be able to finish the game off,” Godwin said. “That’s something we need to work on. We didn’t do that this time.”
While Godwin stood, the rest of the Penn State locker room sat in stunned silence. Some players were half dressed, some still in full uniform. Some were slouched forward, some leaning back on their metal folding chairs. There was no anger, no tears, just bewilderment at how a team that relied on second-half momentum to win the Big Ten title could allow it to turn against them so cruelly.
Quarterback Trace McSorley took the blame. Whether he deserved it was another matter.
“Three interceptions, you’re not going to win a game like that, so that’s all on me,” McSorley said. “These guys, these seniors, they worked so hard. It just hurts right now to not be able to do that for them.”
McSorley’s last throw, a heave down the far sideline that was intercepted by USC safety Leon McQuay to set up the game-winning field goal, was a misguided effort to harness the lightning that had put Penn State ahead after falling behind by 13 points on three separate occasions in the first half. Instead of working through his progressions, McSorley decided to target Godwin even though McQuay had nearly intercepted a throw in the same vicinity for tight end Mike Gesicki on the previous play.
“I tried too much to force it to Chris. He’d been making plays for us all game, so that was kind of the guy in my mind,” McSorley said.
Godwin took responsibility on behalf of the entire offense, ignoring all the good work that resulted in touchdowns on four consecutive plays during the second and third quarters, including Saquan Barkley’s dazzling 79-yard run and Godwin’s score plucked from the air after cornerback Iman Marshall deflected it.
That will come on another day.
“I think I’ll be able to look back and realize what a great game it was and what an atmosphere I was blessed to be a part of,” Godwin said.
Penn State nearly scored as many points against USC’s defense as Washington, Oregon and Stanford did combined, thanks to a willingness to attack the Trojans all over the field. Barkley was outstanding, rushing for 249 yards and scoring three touchdowns as a runner and receiver. But the reliance on big plays came back to haunt Penn State when it was trying to run out the clock, recording just one first down and 14 yards of offense in the fourth quarter.
If you grade on the Big 12 curve, both Penn State and USC turned in decent defensive performances. However, Penn State was never able to sack quarterback Sam Darnold and had just one tackle for loss. Even when Darnold was under duress, he was able to keep his eyes downfield and complete passes, finishing with 453 yards and five touchdowns.
Special Teams: A-
For all attention lavished on USC’s versatile Adoree’ Jackson, Penn State largely outplayed the Trojans and their return ace. Miles Sanders misjudged the opening kickoff, but the defense held USC off the board after McSorley threw an interception on the first play of the game. Blake Gillikin averaged 50.8 yards per punt, and was helpful in holding Jackson and Deontay Burnett to just 19 return yards.
Penn State will be waiting on draft declarations from the likes of Godwin, who said afterward he had yet to make a decision on whether to return for his senior season or enter the 2017 NFL draft. But with a strong nucleus of returning starters, led by McSorley and Barkley, Penn State should start next season ranked in the Top 10 and an obvious candidate to reach the College Football Playoff.