Trace McSorley leaned forward in a folding chair next to the locker room entrance and tried to make sense of what happened.
How did Penn State go from 4½ jaw-dropping minutes where it scored three touchdowns in three plays against USC in the third quarter to making crucial mistakes in the final seconds of Monday’s Rose Bowl?
How can a game when McSorley, the redshirt sophomore quarterback with a small stature and big arm, throws for four touchdowns and sophomore Saquon Barkley, the highlight-a-minute running back, rushes for 194 yards end in a 52-49 loss?
“For us to climb back like we did and not finish like we know we can, it hurts,” McSorley said.
He rubbed his hands together and kept repeating those words: “It hurts.”
How the game started made the finish all the more difficult to bear in the locker room. Penn State trailed by as many as 13 points, hampered by interceptions on McSorley’s first two passes of the game. A receiver ran the wrong route on one and tipped the pass in the air the other.
But Barkley, who watched college highlights of former USC running back Reggie Bush during the last month, took a handoff on Penn State’s first play of the third quarter, ping-ponged off half a dozen tacklers and raced 79 yards for a touchdown to put the Nittany Lions ahead, 28-27.
“The O-line blocked it perfectly,” he said.
McSorley found Chris Godwin down the sideline for a 72-yard touchdown on a circus catch that left the junior receiver, who caught nine passes for 187 yards, unsure of how he corralled the football. Set up by an interception less than a minute later, McSorley plowed into the end zone on a three-yard run. Before the stands had filled up after halftime, Penn State led, 42-27, and couldn’t seem to do anything wrong.
That only worsened the sting of the game’s final two minutes.
As USC’s high-powered offense rallied in the fourth quarter, Penn State tried to run down the clock. Barkley lost seven yards on a third-down run, his worst of the game. On the next series, defensive back Leon McQuay III dropped an underthrown pass from McSorley. That summoned another third down, where the quarterback lofted another underthrown ball to the same side of the field in front of the USC sideline. He saw Godwin get behind a cornerback and thought he could make the play. Instead, McQuay had an easy interception with 27 seconds remaining.
Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said Penn State has run the final play repeatedly with good results. The gamble just didn’t work out.
“I tried too much to force it to Chris,” said McSorley, who passed for 254 yards but threw more interceptions than he did during all of this season’s nine-game winning streak by Penn State. “I need to not try to predetermine where I’m going because of how a guy has been playing, but let the coverage determine where the ball goes.”
A few feet away from the quarterback’s locker, a teammate glared at the television cameras and recorders and uttered a profanity as questions about the final turnover continued.
“These guys are ... brutal,” the teammate said.
Eyeblack smudged and cleats off, McSorley stared straight ahead as the questions continued.
“They did everything they needed to do to win this game and we didn’t,” the quarterback said. “A lot of that falls on me.”
He didn’t flinch.
Koa Farmer returns
Koa Farmer grew up in Lake View Terrace, an 18-minute drive from the Rose Bowl. More than 50 family members and friends attended the game to support the Penn State redshirt sophomore — an equal number tailgated outside the stadium — and the attention left Farmer “super nervous.”
Farmer, who started at outside linebacker in place of the suspended Manny Bowen, said the nerves disappeared after his first collision on special teams.
After the last-second loss, Farmer wondered about what could’ve been.
“If we could’ve just made one more play, not even two plays or three plays, just one more play, it could’ve kept us on top,” he said.
Including Penn State’s loss, Big Ten Conference schools were 3-7 in bowl games. That’s the worst record among the Power Five conferences. ... Penn State supporters delivered a rousing cheer when the Rose Bowl’s video board showed a large picture of former coach Joe Paterno early in the third quarter. … A banner hung from an overpass on the 134 Freeway in Glendale before Monday’s game that read: “Shame. JoePa knew.” It referred to the child sex-abuse scandal involving former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky. … Junior linebacker Jason Cabinda, born in Buena Park, led Penn State with 11 tackles. … Brandon Bell, a senior linebacker, left the game early in the fourth quarter because of an undisclosed injury after his 24-yard interception return.