PASADENA, Calif. - The 103rd Rose Bowl looked like another second-half comeback for Penn State, a characteristic that has marked its special season, but Southern California came up with a more remarkable rally of its own.
The Nittany Lions came back from a 13-point first-half deficit to take a 15-point lead in the third quarter, but the Trojans tied the score with 1 minute, 20 seconds left, then capitalized on Penn State's third turnover for the winning score - Matt Boermeester's 46-yard field goal at the final gun - for a thrilling 52-49 victory.
In a game that went on for 4 hours, 12 minutes, the Lions (11-3) saw their nine-game winning streak snapped before a crowd of 95,128 on a cloudy and cool day, and were denied a chance to win 12 games in a season for the fourth time. The Trojans (10-3) finished the season with their ninth win in a row.
"I'm really, really proud of our guys in that locker room," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "Obviously there's a lot of emotion, a lot of hurt going on, and that's natural. But these guys should have their chin held high and their chest out, because we've been able to accomplish this season is really the story. Today was a small sample."
Penn State had been making a habit of second-half comebacks, rallying from 21 points down in the second quarter to win the Big Ten championship game over Wisconsin. And the Lions were showing how they did it, scoring three touchdowns on their first three plays of the third quarter – including Saquon Barkley's 79-yard run and Trace McSorley's 72-yard pass to Chris Godwin – and held their largest lead at 42-27.
When the Lions scored their last touchdown on McSorley's 7-yard pass to Barkley late in the third quarter, it was their seventh TD in their last seven possessions, good for a 49-35 lead.
But USC eventually tied the score on a 27-yard pass from Sam Darnold to Deontay Burnett late in regulation, and Penn State took possession with 1:09 left and two timeouts from its 35.
On third down, the Nittany Lions decided to take a deep shot downfield to Godwin, who set program bowl records with nine catches for 187 yards. But McSorley's pass was intercepted by Leon McQuay III, who returned the ball 32 yards to the Penn State 33.
After a 5-yard run, Darnold spiked the ball with five seconds remaining, clearing the way for Boermeester's game-winner, his third field goal of the day.
"There was discussions on the headset whether to run the ball and play for overtime," Franklin said. "But that's not really who we have been all year long. The problem is, you can't turn the ball over in that situation. I think that's the difference."
McSorley, who had thrown just two interceptions during his team's nine-game winning streak, had three picks, including one on each of the Lions' first two possessions. He finished 18 of 29 for 254 yards and four touchdowns.
Barkley rushed for a program bowl record 194 yards in 25 carries and caught five passes for 55 yards. He ended the game with 306 all-purpose yards, a total that included two kickoff returns.
Of his 79-yard run, Barkley said, "The O-line blocked it perfectly and got me one-on-one with a guy and I was able to make him miss. I was just satisfied to get in the end zone. We turned it over early in the game. Coach Franklin told me someone's got to come up and make a play, and I kind of took that personally."
Darnold completed 33 of 53 passes for 453 yards and five touchdowns. Burnett caught 13 passes for 164 yards and three scores.
With the two early interceptions, the Nittany Lions got off to a terrible start, and trailed by 13 points in the first half on three separate occasions. Their defense could not stop the Trojans, whose seven first-half possessions ended in three touchdowns, two field goals and two missed field goals.
Barkley's 24-yard scoring run just over three minutes into the second quarter launched the touchdown streak. Trailing 27-14, the Lions got a touchdown on their final drive of the half on an 11-yard pass from McSorley to Mike Gesicki with 54 seconds remaining.
After the Penn State defense forced the Trojans into their first punt of the game on the initial possession of the third quarter, the Lions went to work.
On his team's first play, from its own 21, Barkley went over the right side, made three tacklers missed, cut across diagonally to the left and scored as the white-clad Penn State fans went wild. The Lions took their first lead of the game at 28-27 less than two minutes in.
On his next snap, McSorley went deep down the left sideline on the first play to Godwin. The ball was tipped by cornerback Iman Marshall and into the hands of Godwin, who went the rest of the way untouched to make it 35-27.
The Lions got the ball right back when linebacker Brandon Bell intercepted a tipped pass and returned it to the USC 3. McSorley scored on the first play, giving Penn State three touchdowns in a 4:34 span and a 42-27 lead.