PASADENA, Calif. — In mid-August, after prolonged vacillation, Southern California Coach Clay Helton declared the junior Max Browne his starting quarterback. Browne, once a top-ranked recruit, had waited his turn behind Cody Kessler, and the decision generated minimal dissent among Trojans fans.
Three games into the season, Helton changed his mind. Out went Browne, and in came the freshman Sam Darnold. U.S.C. went on a tear, closing out its regular-season schedule with eight consecutive wins.
Darnold tacked an exclamation point onto an improbable debut season on Monday by guiding U.S.C. (10-3) to a pulsating 52-49 Rose Bowl win over Penn State (11-3).
Possessing uncommon mobility for a 6-foot-4 passer and an array of receivers with sprinter speed and flypaper hands, Darnold threw for 453 yards and five touchdowns, including three to Deontay Burnett, in a back-and-forth game that will be remembered as one of the best iterations in the bowl’s 103-year history.
Darnold’s 33rd and final completion set up Matt Boermeester’s winning field goal from 46 yards as time expired.
“I love the quiet confidence about him,” Helton said of Darnold. “You never saw his demeanor change tonight, whether he was throwing for a touchdown or we got stopped on offense.”
It was a climax that matched, if not exceeded, lofty anticipation for the game. The teams entered with the third- and fourth-longest win streaks in the nation despite both exiting September with a combined record of 3-5, blemished by demoralizing defeats: U.S.C.’s 46-point loss to Alabama and Penn State’s 39-point setback against Michigan.
Both programs have risen in recent years from the rubble of devastating N.C.A.A. sanctions, Southern California’s brought on by improper player benefits and Penn State’s from the Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse scandal.
So from that vantage point, the game was almost a playoff matchup for both squads. Sellers on the secondary ticket market were commanding prices that exceeded those for Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinals, and the 95,128 attendees were rewarded with a thrill-a-minute show.
Penn State was left to process a loss in which it entered the fourth quarter with a 14-point lead after scoring touchdowns on seven consecutive possessions in the second and third quarters.
“Their offensive line kind of neutralized us,” Penn State Coach James Franklin said, “and allowed their quarterback to be too comfortable in the pocket.”
The Nittany Lions entered the game with no shortage of standouts of their own. College recruiting evaluators had ranked tailback Saquon Barkley highly, but not high enough to suit him. As motivation, Barkley had committed to memory the names of prospects rated above him.
Trace McSorley was held in lower regard at his preferred position as well. Widely recruited as a safety, he sold himself to Franklin — then at Vanderbilt, now with the Nittany Lions — as a quarterback.
Barkley, the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year, wound up with 249 yards from scrimmage, 194 on the ground. The rushing amount was 139 more than that of the Trojans’ Ronald Jones — one of those recruits rated superior to Barkley.
McSorley amassed four touchdown passes and scored once himself. Chris Godwin scored twice and reeled in 9 of 11 balls aimed his way for 187 yards.
Penn State’s offensive attack had it on the brink of victory, with a 7-point lead and the ball with a little more than two minutes left.
But starting from its own 20-yard line after a Nittany Lions punt, U.S.C. sailed 80 yards to tie the score with 1 minute 20 seconds left, thanks in part to consecutive pass-interference penalties.
Then Franklin, unwilling to settle for overtime, summoned a pass on third-and-long that was intercepted by Leon McQuay, who returned it 32 yards to the Penn State 33. U.S.C. gained 5 yards in two plays, leaving Boermeester with a field-goal attempt of 46 yards on the game’s final play.
“It doesn’t really make a difference how far it is — just make it go straight,” said Boermeester, who finished with two misses on five field-goal attempts. “Wherever it was at, I was kicking it.”
For the notoriously slow-starting Nittany Lions, the afternoon began ominously. They shied away from fielding the opening kickoff and curled around the ball at the 3-yard line. The first snap ended in an interception on a mix-up with the pass route.
Penn State limped out of the first quarter trailing, 13-0, with just 2 passing yards.
Then the 6-foot McSorley, unable early to maneuver passes around the outstretched hands of U.S.C. defenders, found some rhythm, and Penn State scrambled to within 27-21 by halftime.
“We hate first halves,” Franklin, lamenting the early deficit, said afterward. “We’ve got to be more efficient, more effective.”
They adore second halves, however, and Monday’s could not have begun any better for the Nittany Lions. They struck for touchdowns on their initial three plays from scrimmage after the break, scoring 21 points in the first four and a half minutes despite U.S.C. receiving the second-half kickoff.
Barkley, who had gotten his team on the board with a 24-yard score, zipped 79 yards for the first touchdown of the second half. McSorley and Godwin collaborated on a 72-yard touchdown. And after an interception return to the U.S.C. 3-yard line by Brandon Bell, McSorley took care of the rest on a keeper that gave the Nittany Lions a 42-27 lead.
The Trojans responded with a 65-yard drive capped by Darnold’s touchdown pass and a 2-point conversion to make it 42-35, but hurt themselves with penalties on Penn State’s subsequent possession. A late hit on a prone McSorley and a taunting infraction brought the Nittany Lions 30 yards closer to the end zone, and Barkley reached it with a 7-yard pass reception for a 49-35 lead.
Jones — swapping jersey No. 25 for No. 4 in honor of the ex-Trojan Joe McKnight, who was shot and killed last month — pulled U.S.C. to within 7 points on a 3-yard score midway through the fourth.
With U.S.C.’s next touchdown, Darnold to Burnett for 27 yards, a marathon game that had lasted more than four hours seemed certain to be extended into overtime. But the interception and game-ending field goal ended Penn State’s implausible season on a sour note.
“I know this probably sounds crazy,” said Franklin, his voice cracking, “but I wouldn’t be any more proud of our guys sitting here tonight with a win.”
Correction: January 2, 2017
An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of a wide receiver for U.S.C. He is Deontay Burnett, not Deonta.
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