PASADENA, Calif. – It didn’t matter as much as a playoff game.
But it was so much better.
Two days after the College Football Playoff delivered two dreary mismatches, the Rose Bowl rose to a higher level – the highest level of any bowl game this year, and darn near to the highest level in the 103-year history of the sport’s most tradition-steeped game. (Texas-USC 2006 is hard to surpass.)
So we the football fans of America owe a sweaty hug and sloppy kiss to the combatants for bestowing us with the gift of USC 52, Penn State 49. This will not affect who wins the national title – but for the moment, who cares? This was a stand-alone classic that can and should be appreciated on its own merits.
It was chaotic, cathartic, frantic, fearless and almost endless – a 4-hour, 12-minute melodrama marked by whiplash-inducing momentum shifts. There weren’t just lead changes; there were sea changes. There were more points scored than in any Rose Bowl. And the entire splashy spectacle wasn’t decided until the very last play.
When USC kicker Matt Boermeester drilled a 46-yard field goal and set off sprinting toward the opposite end of the field – completing the Trojans’ rally from 15 points down, after once being 13 points up – it was finally over.
A sizeable number of USC fans thought it was over a few minutes earlier, with their team losing, and actually began hitting the exits. They’re officially the worst people in the world for bailing on an instant classic with their team trailing by a touchdown and more than two minutes to play. They’ll all deny leaving early in the years to come, but the tunnels leading out of the USC side of the stadium were packed for a few minutes when things looked bleak.
Hopefully the College Football Playoff powers-that-be kept watching to the end, because this is something they’ll need to come to grips with in the years ahead: how to appraise the red-hot team.
These were among the reddest-hottest, both playing as well as anyone in the country. Penn State roared into Pasadena on a nine-game winning streak; USC had won eight straight. The Nittany Lions won the Big Ten title, and the Trojans were widely considered the best team in the Pac-12 by November. Both had recovered after regrettable Septembers – Penn State started an injury-riddled 2-2, USC started a quarterback-addled 1-3.
Without losing the Every Game Matters urgency that makes college football unique, there should be some mechanism within the CFP selection committee deliberations that accounts for teams that improve as dramatically as these two did.
The single best mechanism would be a six-team playoff, or at most eight. But since that isn’t happening anytime soon, a willingness to at least strongly consider how teams are performing at season’s end should be on the committee’s to-do list for 2017.
Because this was a high-level game that followed two low-wattage playoff affairs. USC and Penn State both performed at a level far above what Ohio State and Washington brought to the table in their semifinal losses.
And the Buckeyes and Huskies were merely keeping alive the nascent tradition of semifinal flops. Michigan State lost by 38 to Alabama last year, and Oklahoma lost by 20 to Clemson. In the previous season, Florida State was demolished by 39 points by an Oregon team that was then demolished in the title game.
To date, only two of the eight CFP games have been decided by a single score: Ohio State over Alabama in the semifinals in 2014, and Alabama over Clemson in the title game last year.
Given the drama deficit in the playoff, we needed this pulse-pounder.
We needed Penn State to crawl out of 13-0 first-quarter crater and make a game of it. The Nittany Lions have been horrible starters virtually all season – “We hate first halves,” coach James Franklin said – and that theme continued here. But when Team Second Half scored three electrifying touchdowns on three offensive snaps in the third quarter, this began to look like a blue-and-white runaway.
So we needed to USC to rise up and make some defensive stands. The trampled Trojans gave up touchdowns on a staggering seven straight possessions – and somehow won.
And we needed two gunslinger quarterbacks trading YOLO bombs. USC freshman Sam Darnold rarely passed up an opportunity to fire downfield, throwing for 453 yards (just three short of the Rose Bowl record) and five touchdowns. Penn State sophomore Trace McSorley continuously ran for his life and hucked it deep, relying on his receivers to outfight USC defensive backs and make great catches.
Their final two deep shots were pretty much the difference in the game.
Trailing 49-42 with 1:33 remaining, Darnold dropped back and surveyed the field. He had a receiver shockingly open on an underneath route – like, nobody this side of the San Gabriel Mountains. He also had Deonta Burnett running down the middle of the field into what amounted to triple coverage.
Darnold went for it and fired down the middle, dropping it deftly between dark-blue jerseys for Burnett’s 13th and final catch of the day, and his third touchdown.
“What Tay’s actually supposed to do is keep a straight line, not necessarily run a post like that,” Darnold said. “But just the player that he is, he made a play, and I saw him. So I’m happy I threw it to him and not the shallow. So, yeah, we’ll just leave it at that.”
McSorley’s final gamble didn’t end nearly as well. He came into this game averaging 9.4 yards per attempt, sixth-best in the nation, so going deep has been part of the Penn State playbook under outstanding first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. And that strategy had paid off several times in this game – until it didn’t, at the very end.
Facing a third-and-9 at the Penn State 36, the Nittany Lions did not play for overtime. McSorley fired deep down the right sideline, and safety Leon McQuay made his second of three USC interceptions, which he returned to the Penn State 33.
McSorley had brutal bookends to this game. He started out 0-for-5 with two interceptions, and ended 0-for-3 with a pick on his final three throws. In between, he and his receivers were amazing, but the trio of interceptions was a single-game high for his career.
“You can’t turn the ball over against good opponents and have a chance to win,” Franklin said.
After the last of those turnovers, it suddenly wasn’t Penn State driving for the win. It was USC.
But Trojans coach Clay Helton kept it conservative, handing off for five yards and then spiking the ball to set up a 46-yard field goal. That threw a burden on the shoulder pads of Boermeester, who already had missed two out of four field goals in this game.
“Game was on the line, but you’ve got to keep true to your technique and trust it,” Boermeester said.
Trust was rewarded with a solid kick and a sprint-off celebration.
And college football fans were rewarded with the best game of bowl season, a welcome classic that was far superior to a couple of playoff duds and redeemed a dull December.