One team traveled 2,500 miles to play in a stadium seating more than 95,000, situated in a quiet residential neighborhood, just below the majestic San Gabriel Mountains.
For the other, with two-thirds of the crowd wearing cardinal and gold, it was a mere 10-mile drive up the Arroyo Seco Parkway for the opportunity to play in the 103rd Rose Bowl that felt much like a home game.
Both took unique paths to get to what many still claim is “The Granddaddy of Them All,” – easy to say when an Alabama team isn’t involved – but it was an interesting trip for both Penn State and USC to wind up in one of the most memorable Rose Bowls to date.
It featured teams with plenty of question marks in the early going of the 2016 season, two clubs that weren’t expected to get this far when it all began. Good grief, who can forget Alabama’s 52-6 shellacking over the Trojans in the opener, some calling it a national embarrassment after USC suffered its worst loss in 50 years. Similarly, the Nittany Lions were handed a 3-point in state loss to rival Pittsburgh in their second game and were buried 49-10 by Michigan in their fourth. Combined, the two teams held a 3-5 record after the first four weeks of the season, putting the Nittany Lions’ James Franklin and the Trojans’ Clay Helton on the hot seat in the minds of many when the new campaign was just getting started.
Yet, the Nittany Lions suddenly playing with purpose and the Trojans, reinvigorated with the change to Sam Darnold at quarterback, both teams never lost again, that is until USC pulled out a dramatic, come-from-behind 52-49 victory in Monday’s Rose Bowl.
For the Trojans, it was their ninth straight victory, ending Penn State’s nine game winning streak, including a Big Ten title victory. How they did it will live in Rose Bowl lore forever.
Whatever you call it – epic, emotional, mind-blowing, riveting – the Trojans’ Rose Bowl win over Penn State was simply a game for the ages. It didn’t even feature the highest ranked team in the Pac 12, but USC put on a show, especially down the stretch in the fourth quarter, that will never be forgotten by Trojan fans, climaxed by Matt Boermeester’s 46-yard field goal with no time on the clock. The boot climaxed a 17-point rally.
Played over a four-hour and 12 minute span, the points kept coming, many very, very quickly while the 101 final total was the highest scored in Rose Bowl history. Remarkably, Penn State scored three touchdowns on three offensive plays as part of a 28-point third quarter before the Trojans made their fourth period blitz.
USC’s Sam Darnold, who has to now be a Heisman candidate for next season after throwing for 453 yards and five TDs, became the magic man like he has all season, helping to bring the Trojans back with 17 unanswered points. In the flurry, JuJu Smith-Schuster made a huge one-handed catch, Michael Hutching contributed making a notable third-down stop and Leon McQuay came up with a key interception that led to Boermeester’s deciding kick after he had missed two earlier in the game. Confident, this time the junior drilled it through the uprights, followed by pandemonium among the Trojan fans and players.
Setting up the drama in the end was USC’s Deontay Burnett, who caught his third touchdown of the night on a tying 27-yard scoring pass from Darnold with 1:20 left in the contest, capping an 80-yard drive with 38 seconds in the game.
McQuay then intercepted a long pass by Nittany Lions’ quarterback Trace McSorley, bringing it back to the Penn State 33 with 27 seconds left, ultimately putting Boermeester in a position to make his memorable kick.
“It’s beautiful,” McQuay said. “This is a special group of guys. Oh man, this is the time to step up. This is the time to make plays.”
The Nittany Lions had big moments too, as McSorley passed for 254 yards and four touchdowns, throwing a pair two to Chris Godwin. to his team’s demise, he also through four interceptions, oddly a pair on his first two throws. Teammate Saquon Barkley rushed for 194 yards and two touchdowns. The Nittany Lions’ racked up 28 – third quarter points after trailing 27-21 at the half.
On its first three plays of the second half, Penn State stunningly scored three TDs – A 72-yard run by Barkley, an unreal, bobbling 79-yard catch by Godwin and a 3-yard run by McSorley after the Nittany Lions got the ball back on an interception return.
The Trojans fell behind 49-35 with nine minutes to play, but the Trojans had something left in the tank – a lot left – making this year’s historic battle in the long series one of the most memorable ever.
“It was a whole team effort,” said Darnold in the aftermath of Monday’s win. “That’s the way it’s been all year. We never gave up.”