USC vs Penn State: Five Memorable Games in Series History
The USC vs Penn State series is not as illustrious as other Pac-12 vs Big Ten rivalries, but the Trojans and Nittany Lions have plenty of history to recall.
The 2017 Rose Bowl will pit USC and Penn State against each other for the first time since 2009, but the two have a history going back to 1923 with nine meetings between the iconic college football programs.
The Trojans narrowly edge the series lead with five wins to Penn State’s four, include the two most recent games.
Before the men of Troy look to increase that win-streak to three, here’s a look at some of the most memorable games in the USC vs Penn State series history:
USC’s First Rose Bowl Win (1923)
January 1, 1923 brought around firsts for both of the teams involved in the annual Rose Bowl game — USC and Penn State.
The Nittany Lions were making just their first postseason appearance ever while the Trojans earned their first trip to the Granddaddy Of Them All thanks to Cal’s declined invitation.
It was also the first of USC’s record 24 victories in the Rose Bowl.
The men of Troy achieved that win going against the conventional wisdom. While Penn State had been beaten before with aerial attacks, teams had had little success trying to run the ball on the Nittany Lion front.
But that’s exactly what USC did, riding the running game with 123 yards on 29 carries from Roy Baker.
Though they fell behind 3-0 in the first quarter, the Trojans shut down Penn State’s offensive attack from that point on and then methodically drove for two rushing touchdowns.
The first of those was set up by a critical fourth-down-converting catch by USC’s Harold Galloway, who secured the diving reception at the two-yard line but dislocated his shoulder in the process.
USC won the game 14-3, prompting the Daily Trojan to opine: “Trojans have ‘arrived,’ have seen, have conquered.” And they were right, the Trojans had indeed arrived on the national scene.
Marcus Allen’s Final Game (1982)
USC and Penn State wouldn’t meet again for decades after that first Rose Bowl victory, but the Nittany Lions got their revenge 59 years to the day in a different venue — the Fiesta Bowl.
Penn State took all the shine off of the grand finale for Marcus Allen’s illustrious career, holding the Heisman winner who had averaged better than 200 yards per game to just 85 yards on 30 carries.
Allen fumbled on the first play of the game to set up the first Nittany Lion score but linebacker Chip Banks evened the score at 7-7 by returning an interception 20 yards to the endzone.
From there, however, Penn State took control, jumping out to a 17-7 halftime lead after a long touchdown pass and a field goal in the second quarter.
With Allen and the Trojan run game completely shut down, USC was never able to get back into the game offensively. It didn’t help that Penn State’s Curt Warner had plenty of success running the ball, totaling 145 yards on 26 carries en route to MVP honors.
A blocked punt which went out of the back of the endzone for a safety was the last of USC’s miseries on that day, falling 26-10 in their only Fiesta Bowl appearance ever.
The Upset (1991)
No season in USC history started more embarrassingly than 1991, when the 16th-ranked Trojans were run off the field with a 24-10 home loss to Memphis State.
Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions were at the opposite end of the spectrum. They walked into the Coliseum with a No. 5 ranking, coming off of an 81-0 demolition of Cincinnati.
Cue the Jaws music. The Trojans were facing inevitable doom square in the face, as Penn State was led by acclaimed quarterback Tony Saaca and a linebacker corps full of future NFL Draft picks.
Yet somehow, someway, the 1991 USC team –a squad whom would finish just 3-8– found a way knock off mighty PSU. They even did it convincingly.
Saaca was under duress the entire game, as the Trojans wrapped him up for five sacks, intercepted him twice, and chased him out of the game with a 45 percent completion percentage. Backup Matt Nardolillo didn’t help matters.
USC defensive back Jason Oliver had three interceptions himself, and the Trojans forced five Penn State turnovers in total. Two led to short touchdown drives, including a 20-yard jaunt to take a 14-7 lead before halftime, and a 14-yard trip to ice away the game in the fourth quarter, at 21-10.
To say the win was much-needed would be an understatement. Los Angeles Times columnist Mike Downey put it simply, saying “suicidal alumni out there can put away those nooses and cyanide pills.”
The Missed Two-Point Conversion (1993)
While USC vs. Penn State has never had the cache of the iconic USC vs. Michigan or USC vs. Ohio State rivalries stemming from repeated Rose Bowl games, the Trojans and Nittany Lions built up a familiarity for each other by playing six times from 1990 to 2000.
The most competitive meeting was in 1993 at Beaver Stadium, John Robinson’s third game back as USC’s gaffer. After a 22-point loss to North Carolina two weeks prior, he couldn’t afford to stumble out of the gate.
It looked inevitable however, with the Nittany Lions jumping out to a comfortable 21-7 lead at halftime, before carrying it deep into the fourth quarter.
But USC rallied with a suddenly in-rhythm passing game to score twice in the game’s final five minutes pulling within 21-20, and giving Robinson a whale of a decision. He could kick the PAT and settle for a likely tie with 37 seconds remaining, or go for two and a possible win over the 15th-ranked Nittany Lions.
Robinson rolled the dice on the latter, but would crap out. Not only were the Trojans called for an infraction, but quarterback Rob Johnson chucked a pass too low for tight end Johnny McWilliams to catch it.
The loss put USC at 1-2 on the season, though they’d rally with five wins in their final six games to head to a fruitless Freedom Bowl with an 8-4 record.
As for Penn State, they’d wind up at 10-2, following a no-loss November and a win over No. 6 Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl.
Mark Sanchez’s Rose Bowl (2009)
USC and Penn State haven’t met in the regular season since 2000, but their most recent meeting was perhaps the most tangible memory of the series for those clad in cardinal and gold.
The 2009 Rose Bowl was a meeting of two red-hot teams, both with coulda-woulda-shoulda types of seasons.
For the Trojans, the 2008 season was one of the most dominant in school history, but a September loss to Oregon State derailed their shot at a national title. The equally 11-1 Nittany Lions were in the same boat, having fallen to 24-23 to Iowa in early November.
The showdown, billed as USC’s juggernaut defense vs. Penn State’s potent offense led by Darryl Clark and Derrick Williams was just about settled at halftime. And ironically, on the other side of the ball.
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Trojan quarterback Mark Sanchez turned in a game for the ages, throwing for a Rose Bowl record 413 yards, along with four touchdowns. Two of those scoring strikes came in the final 84 seconds of the second quarter, as USC took a 31-7 lead to the break.
They did it by cashing in on scoring drives of 86, 80, 72, 66 and 58 yards, leaving a press-box-bound Joe Paterno without any answers.
The game, which went into the record boards as a 38-24 win following a never-say-die fourth quarter from Clark, would be USC’s most recent trip to the Rose Bowl.
On January 2nd, they’ll look for a repeat performance, against an equally red-hot Penn State team.