Loss can’t take shine off season
PASADENA, Calif. — The effort and the finality moved James Franklin to tears.
After the Nittany Lions wound up one stop and a field goal short of beating Southern Cal on Monday in the highest scoring Rose Bowl of all time, losing 52-49 as time ran out, Franklin didn’t mask his emotions.
He had just watched a most incredible ending to a most incredible season, and he wasn’t about to be deterred by the outcome.
“These guys should have their chin held high and their chest out,” he said. “I know this probably sounds crazy, but I wouldn’t be any more proud sitting here tonight with a win.”
His sentiment was understandable.
He’ll eventually get around to dissecting the slow starts that forced an uphill climb all season and caught up to the Lions here after they spotted USC three two-score leads in the first half — 13-0, 20-7 and 27-14.
And certainly many will debate whether Penn State should have played for overtime, rather than aggressively throwing a late interception that USC turned into the game-winning score.
But neither should overshadow the body of work the Nittany Lions left on the field this year and the foundation they re-established for a Penn State program that five years ago looked 10 years away from a game on this stage.
The Lions have been blowing away their opponents in the second half all year, and they did just that to the speedy and talented Trojans, outscoring them 28-8 in the third quarter to turn what was once a 27-14 deficit into a stunning 49-35 lead.
Almost no one could believe their eyes as Penn State, amazingly, scored four touchdowns on just four offensive plays from the end of the second quarter through the middle of the third.
Saquon Barkley and Chris Godwin took turns trumping each other.
Barkley wound up with 194 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown run for the ages, and Godwin, whose 187 receiving yards and two spectacular touchdowns, turned in the single-best receiving performance in school history.
Godwin had at least three tremendous catches among his nine as Trace McSorley once again had the downfield attack in high gear.
Fueled by the offense, the defense got it together after a shaky start and forced two punts and an interception that allowed the Lions to set up shop at USC’s 3 en route to a 42-27 lead.
But unlike the heroic comebacks against Ohio State and Wisconsin, on this night, the Lions ran into an offense equal to their own.
USC quarterback Sam Darnold was fantastic, throwing for 453 yards and five touchdowns.
“When I look back, of course you question the calls you made, but we probably threw everything and the kitchen sink at this quarterback, and he just kept meeting the challenge,” Lion defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “I was really impressed with him.
“As mobile as we thought he was going into the game, he was even more mobile. We were chasing him all over the dag-gone field. You can only ask DBs to cover so long.”
Franklin thought the Lions’ inability to get to Darnold, along with Penn State’s three interceptions, made the difference.
As much as the defense did not feel good about its role, the offense, even though it put up 49, punted on three straight fourth-quarter possessions before the fateful interception.
“We weren’t able to get that dagger when we were up 14,” McSorley said. “We got ourselves in position to win the game, but we weren’t able to get that final drive, and when you let a team like that, with the offense they have, hang around, it’s going to bite you.
“For us not to finish it out hurts, but is a credit to USC and the job they did.”
Franklin called it “a team loss,” and both units were comforting in the open locker room afterward.
“We knew their offense was a high-scoring offense as well with a bunch of playmakers,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “I think our defense played a great game with all the circumstances. Obviously, when you put up 49, you can never count on it being enough. We have to close a game on our terms, and we weren’t able to do it.”
Penn State only loses four senior starters and through his post-game tears, Franklin said the program must be “indebted” to the players who kept the faith through the sanctions era.
He thanked senior safety Malik Golden, who accompanied him to the interview tent.
At the same time, he also feels Penn State’s stay atop the Big Ten and in the national conversation can’t be taken for granted.
“We (still) have a lot of work to do,” he said, mentioning recruiting and staff retention specifically. “There are programs that have been playing at this level for a number of years, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to catch up.”
The 2016 team, though, certainly did its part.
Despite this Rose Bowl loss, this season helped Penn State close that gap and left giant footprints for future teams, starting next year, to fill.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.