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Penn State Football: The Ride Ends As Nittany Lions Fall To USC 52-49

by on January 02, 2017 11:50 PM

LOS ANGELES, Calif.-- Chris Godwin stood up from his locker, still wearing his pads, and worked around the corner of the room.

A hug for Mike Gesicki, a hug for Tommy Stevens and a long embrace with Trace McSorley.

Then he sat back down, covering his head with a towel.

That was the story across Penn State's locker room on Monday night as the Nittany Lions grappled with the emotions of a last second 52-49 loss to USC. Hugs and tears. Everywhere there were blank stares as players and coaches managed the pain in their own way. It was silent, aside from a few cameras and quiet interviews. No smiles for a team so close knit that had come so far.

"I couldn't be more proud," James Franklin said after the game. "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."

"These guys should have their chin held high, their chest out, because what we've been able to accomplish year from the beginning to the end is really the story."

Even so, it seems like it will be quite some time before Franklin and his team ever fully let go of the heartbreak.

Perhaps predictably, Penn State found itself down 13-0 after the first quarter with McSorley completing one pass and throwing two interceptions. Meanwhile USC's Sam Darnold looked the part of a future NFL star, avoiding Penn State's pass rush and finding his receivers down the field and with accuracy. In truth, Penn State's two score deficit could have been far more and likely felt that way to the some 95,000 fans in attendance.

But Penn State did what the 2016 edition of the Nittany Lions have always done -- they found a way to swing back. Saquon Barkley ran nearly untouched 24 yards up the middle of the field to make it 13-7. USC responded with a five-play, 60-yard drive ending with a Darnold pass to Deonta Burnett making it 20-7

From there it was an amazing 30-yard heave to Chris Godwin from a scrambling McSorley that looked like all the other highlights that have headlined this season. Passes flying through the air with no business finding their intended targets but somehow doing just that. Suddenly Penn State was back in business. McSorley looked like his usual self, and the offense responded in kind, Mike Gesicki grabbing an 11-yard pass to cut back into USC's then late first half lead.

Given Penn State's tendency for a strong second half surge, a 27-21 margin at halftime seemed simple.

And it was.

After holding USC to a short drive, Penn State got the ball just 79-yards from taking the lead, 79-yards from truly getting back into a game that still felt slightly on the ropes for the Nittany Lions.

And 17 seconds later Saquon Barkley found pay dirt with a run that defies description, dodging and slipping past defenders en route to one of the great touchdowns in Rose Bowl history. Suddenly Penn State's once 20-7 deficit was a 28-27 lead. Barkley finished the night with 194-yards on 25 carries.

Penn State's defense responded in kind, holding USC to a short campaign, stunned by Barkley's heroics. So once again Penn State looked at a long field, but a chance to go 72-yards and take a much more meaningful lead.

It was here that Penn State's victory seemed inevitable, or in the very least expected, McSorley hoisted up a pass to Godwin that seemed destined to fall incomplete. But as the ball bobbled in the air Godwin spun, catching it, running the rest of the way untouched. 

The explosion wasn't done there. Brandon Bell intercepted a pass deflected by Christian Campbell and returned it to the Trojan 3. Nine feet from end zone and a 42-27 lead. Bell was injured on the play, a moment seemingly insignificant at the time with Penn State in control, especially after McSorley punched it in a play later to take a 15-point lead. 

Among the million things that made Monday's meeting between two of the hottest teams in the nation so interesting was their similar styles of play. Explosive offenses, big play threats and confident and capable quarterbacks. So as JuJu Smith-Schuster hauled in a 13-yard dagger from Darnold it was once again game-on, 42-35 hardly a tall order following the two-point conversion.

Keeping with the theme of Monday night's chaos, it only took Penn State eight plays and 82-yards to find Saquon Barkley once again from seven-yards out to push ahead 49-35.

Penn State wouldn't score again.

Ronald Jones scored from three yards out after a methodical 10-play, 83-yard drive that chewed up 4:29 off the clock midway through the fourth quarter.

49-42.

From there Penn State's offense sputtered. Four drives would take just over six minutes off the clock and gain just 14-yards. The once inevitable victory felt far from it as USC marched down the field. With 1:20 to go in the game, a 27-yard catch in traffic by Deonta Burnett that tied the game.

With the ball at its own 35, Penn State didn't need to go far to put Tyler Davis in field goal range.

But on first down Barkley only gained a yard.

And then a pass on second was nearly intercepted as it headed towards Gesicki.

And on third down, McSorley lofted a ball into the sky towards Godwin, whose nine catches for 187-yards made him the prime target for the miracle. 

It was intercepted.

"I was just trying to force it to a guy who had been making plays all game," McSorley said. "Bottom line that was what I was thinking, but I can't do that....I was just trying to force it to the guy who had been making plays, but I tried to do it one too many times."

Twenty-seven seconds later Matt Boermeester sent the ball through the uprights from 46-yards away, and the rest was history.

And history is perhaps what made the tears that much harder for players and coaches to keep from flowing as USC rushed the field. Penn State's 2016 team was about as unexpected as they come. The upsets, the victories and the come from behind wins. It will happen again, but never like this, never with this team. When the clock struck zero it was not only a defeat, but the end to a chapter. Penn State will win again, and probably win a lot in 2017, but never quite like this. It's a loss and a goodbye.

"It's a combination of both," McSorley said through red eyes. "To have the season that we did and not to be able to send these seniors out the right way, I think that's what really hurts the most."

"These guys who have done so much for this program and got this program through some of its darkest times, the sanctions and everything like that. They had an easy out to go some place else, but what this place meant to them, and for them to stick with it no matter what and with people writing them off. For five years later in their time to be playing in the Rose Bowl and not let these guys off with a win, it hurts."

But as the locker room finally emptied it would be hard to say that those same seniors were sent out the wrong way. Penn State finishes the season at 11-3 with a Big Ten title under its belt and a bright horizon not far ahead. If nothing else the Nittany Lions went out swinging the way they have all year. In the biggest game of the year, Penn State was the team Penn State has alway been through 2016. Regrets might be found in defeat, but they never got away from who they were.

So like everything, especially in sports, it will be what happens next that truly matters.

"We were so close to being Rose Bowl champs," Barkley said. "And we still have so much work to do, and we're still a young team with a lot of guys coming back, so use that as motivation and try to be the best team we can be next year."



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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