Trace McSorley sailed his first throw for an interception and his second ricocheted off of his receiver’s hands and into the arms of defensive back Adoree’ Jackson. Two throws, two interceptions. By the end of the first quarter, McSorley had thrown for all of two yards. His counterpart, USC redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, spent the first quarter plugging his receivers with perfect intermediate throws, which opened up longer downfield shots. The Trojans probably should have taken a 21–0 advantage by the end of the first quarter, but they led by 13.
Penn State was a few weeks removed from coming back from a 28–7 deficit to win the Big Ten championship game, but its spastic beginning and poor offensive structure conjured memories of Iowa’s start in the 2015 Rose Bowl, one that saw the Hawkeyes trail 35–0 at halftime and never recover. The Big Ten’s forgettable bowl season—the conference entered the Rose Bowl 3–6 in postseason play—was poised to continue, and for fans across the nation, the lingering hangover from two dreary College Football Playoff games looked like it would persist for three more hours in Pasadena. Not only was the first quarter forgettable, it was sloppy.
What transpired over the next three quarters was a dizzying tilt that will stand as one of the great Rose Bowls in the game’s vaunted history. Matt Boermeester’s 46-yard field goal as time expired secured USC’s 52–49 win over Penn State in a contest that featured 13 touchdowns and the best action that the game has seen since Texas’s 41–38 win over the Trojans in 2006. Monday’s showdown highlighted two future faces of the college game (Darnold and Penn State running back Saquon Barkley), an electrifying offensive display by two teams that hadn’t lost since the end of September and a trove of highlights that dwarfed any action from any other bowl game. If the players weren’t exhausted by the game’s conclusion, both sides’ supporters and television viewers certainly were.
The hero was Darnold, who finished 33 of 53 for 453 yards with five touchdowns and one interception. The quarterback, who didn’t start for USC until the third game of the season, has already snatched the distinction of Los Angeles’s best QB from UCLA’s Josh Rosen, who arrived in Westwood as the most hyped Southern California quarterback recruit since John Elway. A budding USC legend who will soon join the ranks of the Trojans’ decorated football history, Darnold is technically a redshirt freshman. Standard freshmen, however, don’t fulfill every cliché that bombards a standard NFL draft evaluation. Great pocket awareness. Good loft on the deep ball. Excellent ability to escape the pocket. Makes great plays on the run. His game-tying touchdown throw to Deontay Burnett, who finished with 13 catches for 164 yards and three touchdowns, will loop when the USC coaching staff recruits Darnold’s successors, but it was his uncommon poise and fearless throws into tight coverages that elicited visions of Andrew Luck. Freed from the weight of NCAA sanctions that crippled the program during the Lane Kiffin years, the Trojans now have a star, even if he muffles any celebration.
The loser, in a game that certainly didn’t deserve one, was Penn State, another program recently freed of similar NCAA constraints, which for one afternoon distracted from the tarnish of the Jerry Sandusky scandal that will hover over the program for the foreseeable future. Given that head coach James Franklin and all the current players were absent from the horror of Sandusky’s legacy, they earned respect for a spectacular season that was supposed to end with more than three losses. For now, supporters and the rest of college football’s fans can focus on a thrill-a-minute quarterback (McSorley), a star running back (Barkley) and an excellent coach (Franklin).
After his miserable first quarter, McSorley channeled the heartstopping play that made him one of the most popular quarterbacks to watch over the second half of the season. He eluded USC’s frequent blitzes to nail throws off his back foot, off one foot and drifting out of bounds to jolt an offense designed for high-risk, high-reward plays. McSorley’s frenetic scrambling and ambitious deep balls evoke the work of Johnny Manziel for the young crowd, Fran Tarkenton for the older folks, making him an ideal marshal for the attack of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, whose philosophy is befitting of a reckless game of NFL Blitz. The Nittany Lions won’t receive rings commemorating their Rose Bowl loss, but Moorhead should be gifted brass jewels.
For all the thrill that McSorley’s deep throws delivered, his ill-fated heave with under a minute remaining landed in the arms of USC safety Leon McQuay, which set up Boermeester’s game-winner. McSorley is the type who never stops going in, and his long toss aimed for glory floated a little too close to the sun before landing in the arms of the opposition.
The loss won’t dim the shine on Barkley, author of maybe the best run in Rose Bowl history and still the most underrated running back in the nation. College football’s abundance of top ballcarriers (Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, D’Onta Foreman and Donnel Pumphrey to name a few) meant Barkley didn’t receive the praise he merits. Shifty enough to juke defensive backs, powerful enough to charge through defensive lines and blistering enough to outrun anybody, Barkley showcased why he’ll be a 2017 Heisman favorite. His 25-carry, 194-yard performance that included two touchdown runs and a scoring reception invites comparisons to former Penn State star Ki-Jana Carter, a Rose Bowl legend who was in attendance.
Great performances will be forgotten in a game deserving of all of the heaping praise it has earned. Penn State receiver Chris Godwin logged nine catches for 187 yards with two splendid touchdown catches, one a dive at the back pylon, the other a seamless out-and-up on a tipped pass for a 72-yard score. The Nittany Lions scored on four consecutive plays to turn a 27–14 deficit into a 42–27 lead in under six minutes. Burnett, who entered the game as USC’s third receiver (at best), logged a career game and caught three touchdowns on the biggest stage of his life. Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda, who opted to return to State College for his senior season, made several key stops to preserve Penn State’s fourth-quarter lead until Darnold’s stunning TD pass. Nittany Lions tight end Mike Gesicki rose up for a touchdown catch that rivaled Godwin’s second-quarter haul to officially bring his team back into a game that initially looked lost. USC’s Adoree’ Jackson didn’t register one of his trademark punt return touchdowns or pick-sixes but did command gawking attention from the audience whenever he’d touch the ball and slip at least two would-be tacklers. JuJu Smith-Schuster, a surefire future NFL wide receiver, hauled in one of the game’s critical catches with two arms outstretched and two toes grazing the grass just inside the sideline to position the touchdown that brought the Trojans within seven in the fourth quarter. Senior linebacker Michael Hutchings, a steady force over four roller-coaster years at USC, dropped Barkley for a tackle for loss that set up Darnold’s game-tying drive.
If that all seems like overkill, it’s because this game earned it. Valiant performances can be lost in the heat of a great battle, and this game should stand with the 2007 Fiesta Bowl between Boise State and Oklahoma as one of the great collegiate clashes.
The Rose Bowl stands above the rest because it has the best setting, the best weather and the best history. Monday’s clash between USC and Penn State confirmed that no matter who is in the playoff, the Granddaddy conquers all.