2017 Rose Bowl

Rose Bowl | Pasadena, CA

2017 Rose Bowl: USC wins one for the ages, tops Penn State with 4th-quarter comeback

PASADENA, Calif. – It started with an interception and ended with a field goal. And tears. And trophy kisses. And victory cigars in the USC locker room.

Yes, Monday night’s 52-49 victory by the USC football team over Penn State in the 103rd Rose Bowl reminded us why they call it ‘The Granddaddy of Them All.’ Against the odds, and against a formidable foe in PSU, the Trojans triumphed in an instant classic that will be played on TV for decades to come.

“I’m not going to call it a miracle,” senior offensive tackle Zach Banner said. “We earned everything we got. We earned getting here. We earned winning the game. We earned this.”

Things looked bleaker than the gray sky over head in the third quarter for USC. With less than two minutes left before the final period, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley marched into the end zone to give the Nittany Lions a 49-35 lead, sending the throng of white-clad PSU supporters into a frenzy.

The Trojans? It was like the energy was sapped from their sideline. But they were down and not out. The fourth quarter belonged to them. Seventeen unanswered points and several heart palpitations later, they were on the stage in a confetti shower, with black t-shirts touting their status as Rose Bowl champs.

“These kids that I’ve had the honor to coach, they’re the definition of ‘Fight On,’” USC coach Clay Helton said. “Whether it was a season or this game, this game has just kind of signified what our whole season has been -- about never quit, keep competing and good things will happen.”

The comeback started with a killer catch from JuJu Smith-Schuster down the right sideline in the fourth quarter. After originally being called out of bounds, referees reviewed it and determined he got a foot in, setting up a 3-yard touchdown run from Ronald Jones, who donned the No. 4 jersey in honor of late USC alum Joe McKnight.

But the real drama was saved for the final moments.

With just about two minutes left in the contest, senior Michael Hutchings made a huge tackle on third down to stop the clock and give it to Sam Darnold, who put on an unprecedented show under center for the Trojans all afternoon.

Boom. Pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster down the sideline. Boom. Pass to Daniel Imatorbhebhe for another first down. Boom. Boom. Two pass interference penalties, and the Trojans were in scoring range.

Perhaps it was fitting that Darnold connected with Deontay Burnett for the game-tying touchdown. Burnett (13 catches, 164 yards, three TDs) found space down the middle and came down with the ball right at the goal line, giving him his third score of the afternoon.

“It hasn’t hit me yet,” Burnett said. “Maybe it will tonight when I get home with my family.”

Meanwhile, it marked a Rose Bowl-record fifth touchdown pass for Darnold, who completed 33-of-53 attempts for 453 yards en route to winning game MVP honors. Not bad for a redshirt freshman.

“That’s crazy,” Burnett said of his quarterback. “Sam is a great talent. He deserves MVP.”

All knotted up and with the Rose Bowl rocking, the game got even crazier on the next series. After the Trojans dropped a possible pick to begin the drive, senior safety Leon McQuay III didn’t let go of his interception before he tip-toed down the right sideline for 32 yards down the Penn State 33.

About an hour after the game ended, McQuay couldn’t wipe the smile off his face in the locker room, his row of gold bottom teeth shining bright.

“It’s still like a dream-like feeling,” McQuay said. “Like I said before, it’s stuff you dream about.”

McQuay’s pick set the stage for an epic finish in Pasadena. Following a 5-yard run by Jones down to the Penn State 28, USC kicker Matt Boermeester and the special teams unit came out to the field with five seconds on the clock.

Though Penn State tried to ice Boermeester with a timeout, it didn’t matter. He was cold-blooded when it counted most. As the ball rotated through the air and just inside the left upright, the clock struck zero as Boermeester hit a celebratory dab and the rest of his teammates poured out on to the field.

Victory.

“As a kicker, you dream of something like this,” Boermeester said.

Players cried, hugged, yelled, and eventually hoisted the trophy. Stars like Adoree’ Jackson and Zach Banner climbed atop the ladder, sword in hand to lead the loud USC band. All was right in Trojanland.

It was a wild one from the beginning. The first play from scrimmage, Iman Marshall came down with an interception to spark the Trojans, who jumped out to a 20-7 lead early in the second quarter. But the Nittany Lions, led by impressive efforts from quarterback Trace McSorley (18-of-29, 254 yards, 4 TDs), Barkley (25 carries, 194 yards, 2 TDs) and receiver Chris Godwin (nine catches, 187 yards, two TDs), eventually built a 42-27 lead with 10:15 left in the third quarter. Alas for Penn State, it was USC who had the firepower down the stretch.

“I know everybody focuses on wins and losses, but this isn’t the NFL,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “There’s a greater purpose for this. … It’s about preparing young people, allowing them to be in situations to overcome adversity, and preparing them to go on and be successful in life. And that’s what we’re going to do at Penn State today, and always will.”

The win was extra sweet for USC’s senior class. When they joined the program during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, it was reeling from sanctions, in the middle of major tumult and coaching changes. But with Helton at the helm, the Trojans wrapped up their season with nine straight victories and roses in their teeth.

“Just a great way to go out for us,” Hutchings said. “Everything that the 2012 and 2013 recruiting class has been through, who would have ever thought we’d end it in the Rose Bowl?”

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