Rose Bowl defeat a spectacular peformance

Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold shakes hands with Penn State running back Saquon Barkley after the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game Monday, Jan. 2, 2017, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

LOS ANGELES — Jordan Smith sat alone at his locker for more than 45 minutes after the remarkable Rose Bowl game wearing his full uniform, including helmet, because he didn’t want his college career to end.

Not like this.

As his teammates showered and milled around, Smith, a senior cornerback for Penn State, mostly stared straight ahead, trying to fight back tears. One of the greatest games ever played in the “Granddaddy of Them All” had just finished late Monday night, and in heartbreaking fashion, the Nittany Lions lost in the final seconds to USC, 52-49.

“It’s hard to let something special go,” Smith said. “My teammates, I love those guys. I’d fight for those guys if they ever need anything. We had something so special going, and this being the last game of my career, it’s something that I never want to end.”

Memories of this Rose Bowl game will live on for ages, as both teams turned in spectacular performances at various times and overcame big deficits before delivering a thrilling finish.

One team had to lose. Penn State was that team, leaving the players and coaches with the feeling of knowing they had just taken part in an instant classic, yet feeling disappointed with the outcome.

“For us to crawl all the way back and have it end like that, it hurts. It really does hurt,” said Lion quarterback Trace McSorley, referring to his team overcoming an early 13-0 deficit.

The Lions were down 27-21 at the half, then put together perhaps the most amazing couple of minutes in their history. They scored a touchdown on three consecutive plays while they were on offense, scoring 21 points to stun USC by taking a 42-27 lead.

The Trojans fought back themselves, however, leaving everyone watching the game feeling like they were witnessing something pretty special.

The players on the field felt it, too.

“As the game went on, me personally I could feel this is going to be something special,” said PSU’s Zach Simpson, a Hollidaysburg Area High School product. “Unfortunately, we came out on the wrong side.”

USC tied the game at 49 with 1:20 left to play, and with Penn State trying to drive for a winning score, McSorley threw an interception. The Trojans returned it to the Lions’ 33-yard line with 27 seconds to go, and they kicked a winning 46-yard field goal as time expired.

“We played good enough to win, but we just didn’t finish out the game,” said PSU defensive tackle Kevin Givens, an Altoona Area High School product. “It was a good experience being here and playing in the game, but we didn’t win, so it is what it is.”

Several players had to fight back tears in the locker room afterward. This was a magical season for the Lions, the Big Ten champions who came into the game 11-2 and ranked No. 5 in the country.

It appeared with a couple of minutes left that Penn State would win, only to have the victory snatched away by a disappointing finish.

“That game tonight really doesn’t define us,” PSU coach James Franklin said. “It’s the whole season. It’s what these guys did. It’s how they persevered. It’s how they love one another. It’s how they care for one another.”

Safety Marcus Allen exemplified that as he looked over at Smith still sitting at his locker.

“That’s my brother right there,” Allen said. “You see how he is right now, I feel as though I let him down. I should have done something better, something more. I feel like I left a play or two out there, and I should have done better on that.”

Games are decided by one or two plays here and there. And the difference between a good team and great team often comes down to a few plays per season.

Penn State lost one of the most memorable Rose Bowls ever, but the way the Lions played did more to cement this as a great season than to diminish that fact.

“We had a blessed season,” Smith said. “We had a great season, a great ride. We wish the outcome was different. But going out there and fighting with these guys, it’s love, it’s family.”