This wasn’t your grandfather’s Granddaddy of Them All. USC and Penn State combined for a Rose Bowl–record 101 points. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley would have tied the Rose Bowl record for passing touchdowns with four, but USC quarterback Sam Darnold broke it with five. Darnold also broke Vince Young’s record for total yards in the game, except this one turned out better for the Trojans.
Both teams went through spells of pure invincibility. Only USC was capable of stopping USC in the first half, as the Trojans scored on five of their seven drives and missed field goals on the two others. But then Penn State scored on back-to-back-to-back-to-back offensive plays, including three “drives” that consisted of one play and one touchdown. But the Trojans closed, scoring all 17 points in the fourth quarter to win 52–49 on a last-second field goal.
Sense only made occasional appearances Monday night, just a few cameos to remind us that it existed. McSorley didn’t complete every pass he threw; in fact, his first two passes were interceptions, and so was his last.
But the 26 in between often made it seem like we were living in some altered reality. McSorley is just about the smallest possible quarterback for a Power Five team whose game isn’t based on running. A three-star recruit, he’s listed at 6-foot-nothing and 205 pounds, which means he’s probably 5-foot-10 and 180. And yet a large part of Penn State’s offense is having him drop back and throw bombs. I believe Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is really good at his job, due to the team’s marked improvement during his first season in Happy Valley. But I also think his passing playbook is just 47 copies of Da Bomb from NFL Blitz. It shouldn’t work, but so many times, either McSorley hit the two-foot radius he needed to hit or Chris Godwin did something like this:
Godwin’s catches didn’t make sense, and neither did JuJu Smith-Schuster’s. Neither did Saquon Barkley’s ability to switch directions as he ran for 194 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown. Neither did Darnold’s entire evening, when he looked more like a veteran NFL quarterback than a redshirt freshman.
Neither did Penn State and USC this year. They both started off awfully. The Trojans opened 1–3, including a 52–6 loss to Alabama, and the Nittany Lions opened 2–2, including a 49–10 loss to Michigan. But neither lost after September, gathering wins until they wound up in the most famous game college football has to offer.
The Rose Bowl itself doesn’t make much sense either. The game started out as a sideshow to a parade, was canceled in place of chariot and ostrich races in the early 1900s, but eventually came back and became the most important game of the college football season. Then it became a matchup between the best team from the Big Ten and the Pac-12, although neither was called that at the time. The game stubbornly held onto that distinction: When college football tried to create a true national championship game through the Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance, the Rose Bowl refused to release its conference champions, leaving open the possibility for a split national title. But the Rose Bowl’s biggest tradition is ensuring it makes a lot of money, which is why it eventually relented, allowing the BCS and College Football Playoff to exist so long as it got to participate and got to stay in its valuable New Year’s Day timeslot. (Exception: This year’s game was played on January 2, because January 1 was a Sunday, and back in 1893 people worried that holding a parade on Sundays would disturb horses posted up outside of churches and interrupt services. Remember what we were saying about stupid traditions?)
But Penn State and USC showed us why it’s still worth loving this freakin’ game. That one-tiered stadium, that idyllic setting taken straight out of the dreams of snowbound Midwesterners. Even as clouds cast the first shadows in Pasadena history, I saw the exterior shots of the stadium on my television and felt warm from 3,000 miles away.
This game doesn’t have to matter to provide beauty. Penn State could’ve been happy with their conference championship. USC could’ve been happy with an 8–0 end to the regular season. Instead they made us think this was the most important thing in sports — and for five hours, it was.