They fought on, in the most dramatic, historic way imaginable, and smelled the red roses. The strongest men survived in arguably the greatest Rose Bowl game in the modern era. On a chilly night in Pasadena, the USC Trojans gave us the perfect ending to an incredible season.
It was one of those classic moments that almost everyone will remember for the rest of their lives, a story everyone can tell years from now. It was a tight, nail-chewing, hair-pulling, breath-holding instant classic Rose Bowl game Monday night. It culminated with a remarkable run of late-game theatrics and the realization that the Trojans are clearly among the nation’s best.
Was it the most memorable? Was it the wildest finish in Rose Bowl history? That wasn’t even a question.
Sure it was.
An uneasy crowd of USC fans hushed in nervous anticipation for the Trojans to climb back into the game with a fourth-quarter run, and surely momentum shifted in the final minutes of a game that was far from over and wasn’t nearly out of reach. The Trojans, who led early, couldn’t move the ball on offense and slowly unraveled — unable to come up with stops on defense, but they fought on to a 52-49 victory. With one minute, 20 seconds left to play, trailing 42-49 late in the fourth, Sam Darnold scrambled and threw it to a leaping Deontay Burnett in the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown to tie the score. A very short time later, the pivotal game-changing play came when senior safety Leon McQuay III intercepted a risky pass from Penn State’s Trace McSorley.
Then, to finally end it all, came The Kick. It ultimately came down to a game-winning field goal, and when Matt Boermeester drilled a 46-yard field goal as time expired that sent the fans into a state of delirium, he ran the length of the field with his USC teammates, pumping his arms wildly in the air. The Trojans stormed onto the field for a celebration with a mixture of disbelief and joy. A crowd that held their collective breath and fell into brief silence roared in triumph and euphoria. It was a thriller, a night for a USC football team whose resilience and heart embodied the meaning of the “Fight On!” mantra. These Trojans fought back from a two-touchdown deficit, defensive meltdowns and scares with nine minutes remaining in the game by refocusing and regaining momentum that seemed to fuel a theatrical rally. USC stunned Penn State with a thrilling comeback.
The ancient stadium in Southern California has been a scene of some of the Trojans’ enjoyable moments in recent years, and with USC having emerged from mediocre to the hottest team in the country, this is a team that has fought hard battles on the playing field to conquer a Rose Bowl championship that seemed unreachable. This was no easy task for USC football, and only because it was so evenly matched in a clash against a tough, in-your-face Penn State team that had put away the Trojans in the second half.
There were lead changes, breathtaking catches, hard-hitting tackles, and more points scored in any Rose Bowl. This was a hard-fought game between two glittering football programs with a legitimate shot at contending for a national championship next season, both exceptionally well coached by two respectable coaches USC’s Clay Helton and Penn State’s James Franklin. There is not a speck of doubt in this school’s mind that the Trojans have what it takes to win the big trophy next season with a slew of returning talent and the kid quarterback. USC’s nine straight wins, devoid of a national title, means it’s a team that has champions’ heart and elite talent, good enough to beat anybody in the nation. The Trojans finished by winning their record 25th Rose Bowl, the most victories by any college team in any bowl. Finishing with a 10-win season and a Rose Bowl victory would not only be considered a success but also very promising looking at the future through the lens.
Darnold, who as a freshman set Rose Bowl records with five touchdown passes and 473 yards of total offense, has earned his reputation as a championship quarterback by producing the most impressive performances in school history. He has continually flashed his arm, great vision, play-making abilities and his quick decision-making. It’s simply in his DNA to shred an opponent’s defense and make plays through the air. He essentially makes plays when it really matters, delivering in the clutch to his receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Burnett, a couple of playmakers who are impactful on offense.
The Trojans have surprised those who wrote them off early following the crushing loss to Alabama in their season-opener. They fought so many heavyweight fights, they knocked out Penn State with one kick that stabbed thousands of Nittany Lions fans in the heart, and then, in the end, received a championship trophy for valor. USC led 27-21 at halftime but then took a beating when Penn State’s Saquon Barkley took a handoff and rumbled 79 yards for a touchdown, shaking and breaking six tackles. Moments later, McSorley tossed a tipped pass that Penn State receiver Chris Godwin turned into a 72-yard touchdown.
When Darnold tossed an interception on the next possession, it set up a three-yard McSorley run that gave the Nittany Lions a 42-27 lead. Just like that, in a matter of minutes, Penn State scored 21 unanswered points, and for the Trojans, it was a wrap.
The dramatic comeback, which was one for the ages, was sparked by Darnold, and after explosive star Adoree’ Jackson hobbled off the field in the third quarter with a right ankle injury, the Trojans pushed their game to another level. Darnold scrambled left, eluded Penn State defenders and connected with Smith-Schuster for a soaring sideline catch, then hit a diving Burnett, and then on defense, Michael Hutchings made a third-down backfield tackle, which was a huge tackle for loss. USC wasn’t going down without a few punches, jabs and a kick. Despite some early struggles, this is exactly what Darnold needed for a stagnant offense to get back on track late in the second half.
There was a laundry list of problems, but a new era begins for a Trojans team that started the season with a 1-3 record. For a moment there, Helton’s coaching seat was hot, very hot, and by the looks of it all, it seemed the Trojans season was in ruins.
But, in the end, USC fought on.