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A Look at Penn State’s Rose Bowl Game History

Jarrod Prugar

Penn State is playing Utah Jan. 2 in the 109th Rose Bowl Game.

It will be Penn State’s fifth appearance in “The Granddaddy of Them All.” 

Here’s a look at Penn State’s first four Rose Bowl Games and what they meant to the program.


JAN. 1, 1923: USC 14, PENN STATE 3

Believe it or not, Sean Clifford wasn’t a part of this game.

All kidding aside, Penn State’s first Rose Bowl Game berth was significant for multiple reasons.

In addition to it being Penn State’s first Rose Bowl, it was the school’s first bowl game of any kind and the first Rose Bowl to be played in, well, the Rose Bowl.

Before New Year’s Day, 1923, the Rose Bowl had been played at Pasadena’s Tournament Park. Penn State wouldn’t play in the Big Ten until 1993, so it couldn’t get into the Rose Bowl by winning the conference. Penn State got the invited by starting 5-0, running through a gauntlet of St. Bonaventure, William and Mary, Gettysburg, Lebanon Valley and Middlebury. After a 33-0 win over Middlebury, the Rose Bowl gave Penn State the invite despite Penn State having five games left in the regular season because 1922.

Penn State went 1-3-1 over its last five games to finish with a 6-3-1 record, but the Rose Bowl invitation stood.

The day was historic for Penn State, but not a great one on the field. It started with Penn State showing up late to the game due to post-Tournament of Roses Parade traffic and ended with USC winning 14-3. USC guard Leo Calland won Game MVP, and Penn State coach Hugo Bezdek got into an altercation with his opposite, Elmer “Gloomy Gus” Henderson, because Penn State showed up late.

Speaking of which, Penn State’s team had 29 players because 1922, went to the game in cabs because 1922, and the drivers of said cabs had to drive over residents’ lawns to get to the game on time because 1922.


JAN. 1, 1995: PENN STATE 38, OREGON 20

Penn State’s first Rose Bowl of the post-Warren G. Harding era was a bittersweet one for fans.

On the one hand, Penn State winning the Big Ten in just its second season in the conference was impressive, as was handling Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

But for many fans, 1994 will be remembered as a year Penn State deserved a chance to play for the national championship and didn’t get one.

With the BCS still four years away, No. 2 Penn State didn’t get a chance to play No. 1 Nebraska because of the Big Ten champion’s obligation to play in the Rose Bowl. As a result, Penn State played Oregon and Nebraska played Miami. Because Nebraska beat Miami, Penn State had virtually no chance at a national title, no matter what.

“We could have won the Rose Bowl 100-0,” a former Penn State player was quoted as saying in Joe Posnanski’s 2012 biography Paterno, ”and it wouldn’t have mattered.

It’d be 14 years before Penn State played in another Rose Bowl, and the program has yet to have another undefeated season.


Jan. 1, 2009: USC 38, PENN STATE 24

The 2008 Penn State team made it to the Rose Bowl but didn’t do much once it got there.

The 38-24 final score doesn’t tell the story.

Although both teams came in with identical 11-1 records, USC was better and outclassed Penn State, leading 31-7 at the half.

Penn State scored some points only after the game was all but over. The loss ended an overall great season on a sour note.


JAN. 2, 2017: USC 52, PENN STATE 49

Unlike New Year’s Day, 2009, Penn State could have, and, arguably, should have beat USC in the Rose Bowl in 2017.

Penn State scored four touchdowns on four straight offensive plays, highlighted by perhaps Saquon Barkley’s most famous run at Penn State.

But coach James Franklin’s team couldn’t close out USC and its star quarterback, Sam Darnold.

Trace McSorley interception in the final minute set up a game-winning field goal by USC’s Matt Boermeester as time expired. It was a rough loss for Penn State, but it also featured some of the most exciting football of the Franklin era. Scoring 49 points on a big stage helped raise Penn State’s and, especially, Barkley’s national profile.

After the 2016 season, Penn State fans hoped there’d be more trips to Pasadena soon. Now, they’re getting their wish.

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