USC won the epic 103rd Rose Bowl with 10 points in the final 80 seconds to beat Penn State. It’s a game that will forever go down in the history of the Granddaddy of Them All. Here’s how they did it.
With 1:59 left in the Rose Bowl, USC trailed Penn State 49-42. Linebacker Michael Hutchings, playing in his final game as a Trojan, had just given the team life by tackling Saquon Barkley for a loss of seven yards and forcing a punt.
After the ball rolled into the end zone, Sam Darnold would be tasked with getting 80 yards.
Eighty yards with the longest of odds.
No timeouts. Turf slicker than ice. A recent history of losing late games, rather than winning them.
All against a Penn State team with a knack for closing games with ferocious comebacks, not allowing them. Certainly not to the tune of blowing what had been a 14-point fourth quarter lead.
“Our seniors got us and rallied us” receiver Deontay Burnett said. “[They] told us to keep fighting on.”
Fight on, the Trojans did. The final two minutes was theirs.
Darnold’s first two passes went for 23 yards, putting USC at the brink of midfield in a blink of an eye.
Then, after seemingly having every call to go against them, the Trojans caught two-straight breaks in the form of pass interference penalties. They sent the Rose Bowl crowd, decidedly split, into an absolute fever pitch with USC marching down the field towards the cardinal-clad end zone.
The tension, palpable. Darnold’s heart rate, slow and steady.
It would need to be.
With the ball at the 27-yard-line, the freshman quarterback dropped back, scanned his reads and fired a strike to a wayward Burnett over the middle of the field for their third touchdown hookup of the day.
The roar was deafening.
“I immediately ran to our fans because I scored in our end zone,” Burnett said. “I pointed at my family and let them know that this is for them.”
The Trojans went 80 yards to tie the game, but still left 80 seconds on the clock for Penn State.
Given that the Nittany Lions had scored on seven-straight drives earlier in the game and quarterback Trace McSorley’s specialty was the deep ball, the most exhilarating Rose Bowl in recent memory was far from over.
Like Hutchings a drive before, it would take another USC senior to stand up and make a play.
Leon McQuay, a player often unfairly criticized before the year for not reaching his potential, had put together a fine season. He had become a sound tackler, and was no longer the five-star guy who randomly made two big plays in the 2014 Holiday Bowl.
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Monday night in the Rose Bowl, with cornerback Adoree’ Jackson out with an ankle injury and linebacker Cam Smith ejected for targeting, someone needed to play the hero.
Why not McQuay?
And so with Penn State firing away, needing to move the football, the opportunity arose.
One play after nearly making a game-turning pick, McQuay sat back in zone coverage and wouldn’t drop another. He snagged Trace McSorley’s third interception on 3rd-and-9, and streaked down the field 32 yards into the Nittany Lion territory with 27 seconds left on the clock.
“A corner jumped the receiver, and of course, I’m over the top in Cover-2,” McQuay said. “The quarterback threw it up, and I just [went to] get it.”
The turnover put it all at the feet of kicker Matt Boermeester.
A first-year starter, Boermeester got to USC in the same way as Deontay Burnett. He was a late addition as a blueshirt enrollee in 2014, and came with a pedigree via his father Peter, who kicked for UCLA in the 1970s.
After losing a kicking competition with Alex Wood prior to last season –partially due to injury– it almost looked as though Steve Sarkisian’s first foray into blueshirting was a misstep.
Even with the effect of sanctions waning, the Trojans couldn’t afford to have a backup kicker using a scholarship.
But the lefty stuck with it. And under the guidance of special teams coordinator John Baxter, he won the starting job in 2016, making a highly respectable 75 percent of his kicks.
Yet going into the final moments of the Rose Bowl, he was a 50-50 kicker. His missed kicks of 49 and 51 yards in the first half were seemingly the difference in the game.
Following Ronald Jones’ five-yard run to run down the clock, he’d have one chance to make up for it. Baxter didn’t have a word of an encouragement ahead of the 46-yard try.
“Nothing,” said Baxter when asked what he told Boermeester. “I said ‘Go pass your final exam.'”
And so he went, sauntering onto the field for the fifth time in the game, prompting Penn State to call their final timeout.
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If the moment looked familiar for Boermeester, it should have. He had studied. The kicker recounted a visualization from Sunday night of a game-winning field goal.
This was the moment.
“I replayed it in my mind again once we got the interception,” he said. “I knew I was going to kick it. It was like I’ve already been there, I’ve seen it in my head already.”
I knew I was going to kick it. It was like I’ve already been there.–Matt Boermeester
But for his teammates, that moment was anything but soothing. The final seconds were harrowing.
“It was kind of like a scary movie,” Stevie Tu’ikolovatu said.
Wide receiver Darreus Rogers couldn’t look. Offensive lineman Viane Talamaivao watched it but said he blacked out for a second.
“The only thing on my mind was that they’re not about to get that Ohio State block on us,” Adoree’ Jackson said.
Penn State didn’t, and the kick went through the uprights as time expired.
Boermeester passed the exam. The comeback was complete.
USC scored 17 unanswered points to win the Rose Bowl, winning the Granddaddy of Them All with a game-winning field goal for the first time ever.
For a team left for dead in September, and again after allowing seven-straight scoring drives through the third quarter, the occasion was everything.
“Honestly, that’s probably one of the greatest moments of my life,” Talamaivao said. “You can’t buy stuff like this. You couldn’t even write it up.”
It was the storybook finish and the perfect ending for a season full of turmoil and triumphs. And for USC fans, it’s a highlight in the south end zone of the Rose Bowl they’ll cherish forever.
“That might be the best football game I’ve ever been to, that I won,” Baxter said. “If you’re a fan at home, boy, did you get your money’s worth.”
He’s right. What a damned game.