PASADENA, Calif. — Monday’s Rose Bowl was not a College Football Playoff game. It didn’t feature the highest-ranked teams in the Pac-12 or the Big Ten. It also didn’t get constant TV promotion during the other 30-plus bowl games.
But if you think USC’s 52-49 victory over Penn State wasn’t meaningful, you weren’t paying attention to the riveting four-hour-and-12 minute commercial for how fun and engrossing college football can be. If you weren’t tuned in, you really should’ve seen Trojan coaches and players with tears streaming down their faces after sprinting onto the field to celebrate with each other after kicker Matt Boermeester booted a 46-yard field goal with no time remaining to cap a 17-point rally.
Or you should’ve stared at the dozens of Penn State players frozen on the Nittany Lions sideline as they watched in disbelief of a game where they fell behind 13-0, then battled back just like they had earlier this season when the young team that was unranked in the preseason rallied from a 21-7 deficit against Ohio State to knock off the Buckeyes, or a 13-3 deficit to defeat Minnesota, or that 24-14 score they’d overcome against Indiana, or even that 28-7 hole to beat Wisconsin to win the Big Ten title. This time, though, Penn State wasn’t the one celebrating as the clock showed 0:00.
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Lynn Swann and Clay Helton (Harry How/Getty Images)
Or you should’ve walked with Penn State’s spectacular sophomore tailback Saquon Barkley as he waded into the Trojans mid-field celebration to congratulate USC players one by one. I stopped counting at a half-dozen that he approached. Some of the Trojan defenders will probably be having nightmares of No. 26. Not just the eight Trojans who had a chance to bring him down and ended up flailing at air on his 79-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, but the rest of them that marveled at his 194 yards on the night.
Lord knows they’d been warned for weeks by USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast about how tricky it is to try and get a sense of a dynamic runner like Barkley in bowl practices. You end up taking bad angles, which is why many of the Trojans congratulated Barkley and told him how special he was. One Trojan told Barkley how he’s an NFL back and looks forward to watching him in the pros. Barkley nodded and gave a half smile. “It sucks,” he conceded a few moments later as he glanced up at the cheering cardinal and gold crowd to the left of the Penn State tunnel. “This is a tough way for our season to end. It hurts, but really I’m more proud that anything. I’m so proud of our guys and the way we keep battling and keep fighting.”
About 40 yards away, a group of Trojan royalty — legends Ronnie Lott, Marcus Allen and Curtis Conway — congratulated their younger brethren and posed for pictures with fans. Many of the Trojan fans had gotten spoiled with all of the success USC had under Pete Carroll. Rose Bowls became almost cliche if they weren’t BCS title games, and then amid hefty NCAA sanctions, the program backslid off the mountaintop. This program had endured a carousel of coaching changes — from the exit of Carroll to the chaos of Lane Kiffin to the interim jolt of Ed Orgeron to the disappointment of Steve Sarkisian and into yet another coaching search that yielded another interim — Clay Helton. (Later a longtime USC observer who has covered the Trojans for 20 years will admit he was stunned to see the level of emotion that poured out of both players and staffers in all those tears but acknowledged that was probably in response to getting caught up in all that transition and uncertainty.)
Matt Boermeester (Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports)
USA TODAY Sports/Robert Hanashiro
It’d been almost a decade since USC had won this bowl, dating back to 2009. Heck, many around Southern California didn’t even think any bowl was possible when the Trojans were 1-3 after getting hammered by Alabama 52-6 and then falling to Stanford and Utah. But that seemed like ages ago. Leon McQuay, USC’s safety who dropped a would-be interception in the last minute only to make good and pick off Trace McSorley on the very next play to set the Trojans up for the game-wining field goal, said no one on his team remembered that awful start. Nope, not after this.
“To be honest, I don’t even remember the beginning of the season,” he said. “No one in our locker room does. We’re living in the moment.”
So was USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin, who celebrated with his wife Toya and their kids as he yelled, “We won the Rose Bowl!”
The 38-year-old Martin quarterbacked Tennessee to the 1998 national title and won two SEC titles, but he called this game with its back-and-forth swings and huge offensive plays the best he’s ever been a part of.
Saquon Barkley (Harry How/Getty Images)
Getty Images/Harry How
“This is what college football is all about,” Martin told FOX Sports. “It’s not about being perfect. It’s about fighting through adversity and getting better and coming together as a team.”
USC athletic director Lynn Swann was asked if this win, as entertaining as it was, meant the Trojans were back.
“No, if we were back, we’d be playing (next) Monday night (in the national title game),” he conceded. “It’s a building process. He (Trojan head coach Clay Helton) has upped the ante,” adding that a comeback win on this stage with the whole football world watching, says something about that team and its coach.
At his postgame press conference, Penn State head coach James Franklin first praised USC’s team before talking about the raw emotion in his locker room. “Tonight obviously was a small sample in what may have been the most exciting Rose Bowl game ever,” he said. “But that game tonight really doesn’t define us. It’s the whole season. It’s what these guys did. It’s how they persevered. It’s how they love one another. It’s how they care for one another. I couldn’t be more proud. I know this probably sounds crazy, but I wouldn’t be any more proud sitting here tonight with a win. I couldn’t be any more proud of our guys.”
Back in the Nittany Lions locker room, it’s a team built for the future. Maybe no one outside of that locker room had taken Penn State seriously for much of this season, but those days are now over. Lineman Brian Gaia is the only senior who starts on offense. He’s been a part of the Penn State family so long he actually committed to the school back when Joe Paterno was the head coach. He’d be lying if he wasn’t thinking about shutting up the doubters who said this program wouldn’t be back. Gaia’s buddy on the line, Derek Dowrey, another five-year player, was slumped on his stool with his head down. Like Gaia, Dowrey could’ve bailed on Penn State plenty of times to go somewhere else. That probably would’ve been easier. Instead he earned two degrees and was part of a Big Ten championship team.
James Franklin and Trace McSorley (Richard Mackson/USA TODAY Sports)
USA TODAY Sports/Richard Mackson
“The longer I sit here, the more proud I am than I am hurt,” he said. “I’m proud of what these seniors have done. I’m proud of what this whole team has done.”
Sandy Barbour hasn’t been at Penn State as long as Gaia, Dowrey or even Franklin, but the Penn State athletic director has been in State College long enough to see plenty of the drama, and earlier this season she was very vocal in support for Franklin before the Nittany Lions seemed to have turned the proverbial corner.
“These young man are teaching us a lot,” she said, standing outside the locker room. “They’re teaching us about what happens when you pull together and have each other’s backs. That’s their legacy.”
Barbour too has heard plenty about what other people think Penn State football is, and how that cannot reflect on the players in that locker room. “We have really diligent students and young men with great character, and that’s what matters.”
As for any of that concern about how everything outside the playoff games is irrelevant or second-tier, Barbour said any time you have athletes who just love to compete and love playing for one another, it’ll never be meaningless.
Or go ask any of the other 95,000 people at the Rose Bowl who witnessed this one.