Jan. 1, 1923. USC 14, Penn State 3
The ninth edition of the Rose Bowl Game was actually the first time the game was played at the Rose Bowl Stadium itself. It saw the first meeting in the “Granddaddy of them All” between historic powerhouses Penn State and USC.
Played in front of a crowd of 43,000 supporters, the game had to be delayed an hour because the Nittany Lions transportation vehicles got stuck in traffic. Lions head coach Hugo Bezdek claimed the team fell behind post-Tournament of Roses Parade traffic on its way to the stadium.
Once the game finally got underway, the Lions jumped out to an early 3-0 lead after “Light Horse” Harry Wilson set up a first quarter 20-yard field goal by quarterback/kicker Mike Palm.
It was all Trojans from there, though.
A steady ground game led by Roy “Bullet” Baker (107 yards), Gordon Campbell (76 yards) and Howard “Hobo” Kincaid (60 yards) paved the way for two rushing scores in the second and third quarter.
The stifling Trojans defense shut out the Lions offense after that opening field goal and preserved the 14-3 win.
Jan. 1, 1995. No. 2 Penn State 38, No. 12 Oregon 20
Considered by many to be the best Penn State team ever, the 1994-95 Nittany Lions rolled into their showdown with Oregon with a head of steam at 11-0 and dreams of becoming national champs.
Filled with NFL talent like Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter, Bobby Engram, Kyle Brady, Joe Jurevicius and Jeff Hartings, the Lions showcased why their offense was the definition of a juggernaut.
Having averaged 47.8 points per game in the regular season, the Lions offense didn’t skip a beat in Pasadena.
Carter took the opening play of the Lions’ first series to the house for 83 yards and a touchdown, setting the tone for a high-scoring affair. That play will forever go down in Penn State lore, and the two teams eventually combined for 58 points and nearly a thousand yards of total offense.
The game was tied 14-14 late in the third quarter, but Carter broke things wide open when he ran for back-to-back scores to put his team ahead 28-14 entering the final quarter.
A field goal and another touchdown on the ground, this time by fullback Jon Witman, put the game out of reach for good, even though the Ducks scored a garbage time touchdown on a 3-yard run by Ricky Whittle.
Carter was named co-Most Valuable Player with Ducks quarterback Danny O’Neil, after the explosive running back finished with 156 yards on 21 carries to go along with his three touchdowns.
The dispatching of Oregon led many to believe Penn State had earned at least a share of the national championship, then awarded by the media and coaches.
Unfortunately for the Lions, the media and coaches didn’t see it that way.
Both sets of voters tabbed Nebraska, who had just beaten third-ranked Miami in the Orange Bowl, as outright national champions, giving longtime Cornhuskers head coach Tom Osborne his first national title. There would be no third national title for head coach Joe Paterno and Penn State.
“It’s really a shame that Penn State couldn’t play Nebraska this year,” quarterback Collins told reporters after the game. “The NCAA has to take a look at this. This season, more than anything, shows that the system needs to be changed.”
Although there was no title to go along with it, the 1994-95 season gave Paterno his fifth undefeated season at Penn State to go along with his other perfect seasons in 1968, 1969, and 1973.
Jan. 1, 2009. No. 5 USC 38, No. 8 Penn State 24
One could make the argument that these two teams were the last two great teams each program had before this season.
Penn State was a clutch kick at Iowa away from running the table as Big Ten Champions, while USC entered the New Year’s Day showdown winners of nine-straight games after its Week Three upset loss to Oregon State.
Despite that loss, the Trojans felt they deserved a spot in the BCS National Championship Game, eventually won by Florida.
The first quarter was tightly contested. Trojans quarterback Mark Sanchez found Damon Williams for a 27-yard touchdown to put the Pac-10 Champions ahead. But the Big Ten Champion Lions quickly answered with a 9-yard touchdown scramble from quarterback Daryll Clark.
The second quarter was a different story, as the Trojans dominated the 15-minute frame.
Sanchez tossed three touchdown passes, coupled with a David Buehler field goal to give the Trojans a commanding 31-7 lead at halftime. At that point it was crystal clear they would walk out with their third-straight Rose Bowl win.
A scoreless third quarter was followed by a strong finish for the Lions. They would claw back to a respectable scoreline, culminating in a 9-yard strike to Jordan Norwood to make it 38-24.
It was a disappointing day for Paterno’s team, and it said farewell to their outstanding senior receiving trio comprised of Norwood, Derrick Williams, and Deon Butler.
Meanwhile for the Trojans, Sanchez left for the NFL after the game, and then-head coach Pete Carroll followed suit a year later, ending one of the best runs in college football history.
Jan. 2, 2017. No. 9 USC 52, No. 5 Penn State 49
Widely regarded as one of the greatest bowl games of all time, Penn State and USC met for a third time at the Rose Bowl in 2017 and broke many of the historic game’s records.
Penn State, who claimed a Big Ten title and were a whisker of way from a College Football Playoff berth, were powered by a high-flying offense led by Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin and Mike Gesicki. Much like the Nittany Lions, USC had rebounded from some early season struggles to rattle off eight-straight wins and earn a trip to Pasadena.
This had all the makings of a great game and it delivered.
USC started fast, claiming the games first 13 points. As the Nittany Lions had done for most of the 2016 season, Penn State shook off a slow start to take command of the game. Leading 27-21 at the half, Penn State went on a 28-7 run in the third quarter, which included Saquon Barkley’s electric 79-yard touchdown rush early in the period. A lone JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown catch for the Trojans kept them in striking distance.
The Nittany Lions took a 49-35 lead into the fourth quarter.
This quarter belonged to the Trojans, however. A touchdown run from Ronald Jones at the 8:15 mark, followed by a Sam Darnold strike to Deontay Burnett with 1:20 remaining improbably tied the game at 49-49.
A McSorley interception on Penn State’s ensuing drive gave USC excellent field position and the Trojans capitalized.
Matt Boermeester completed the comeback for the cardinal and gold with a 47-yard field goal as time expired.
While Penn State came out on the wrong end of the scoreline in Pasadena, the Nittany Lions could hold their heads high for an amazing season.