Let Texas play USC again next week. Put them in the same bowl game, be it the Rose Bowl or the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. USC has to take the trip to Austin next year in a rematch to its 27-24 double overtime win Saturday night, but that’s not enough. Let’s bump the Pac-12 up to the Pac-13 so Texas and USC can play every damn year.
Saturday night’s game seemed primarily like a vehicle for 2006 Rose Bowl nostalgia. There was little expectation that the Longhorns, as 16.5-point underdogs, could compete with the fourth-ranked Trojans. So the promos all featured images of Vince Young majestically trotting into the corner of the Rose Bowl end zone to give Texas the national championship while glossing over the fact that Texas lost its season opener to Maryland and would be without starting QB Shane Buechele. We got more Rose Bowl reviews than USC-Texas previews. That’s fine. We should talk and think about that game as much as possible.
But while most of us focused on the past, Texas made the matchup into a present in the present. Somehow, the Longhorns flummoxed USC’s offense. Future No. 1 Pick Sam Darnold (that’s his full name) threw two interceptions including a pick-six; after running for 307 yards against Stanford, the Trojans only ran for 71 against a team that gave up half a hundred points to Maryland. How could such a highly touted offense fail to do what turtles had done so easily?
And while true freshman Sam Ehlinger didn’t play a great game for most of the night, he developed mythic clutchness in the game’s closing minutes. He alternated between bombs and passes to receivers exactly 1 yard beyond the first-down marker—a 21-yard pass on second-and-20, an 11-yard pass on fourth-and-10.
It sure helped that Ehlinger was throwing to Collin Johnson, who appears to be faster, stronger, and better at jumping than anybody on USC, with spectacular hands. He had 191 yards receiving.
Texas scored its first offensive touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter with 41 seconds to go to take a 17-14 lead. Then USC’s true freshman walk-on kicker Chase McGrath drilled the first field goal of his career to send the game to overtime. The Trojans won in double overtime after Ehlinger fumbled and McGrath drilled yet another field goal, earning him the affection of all of Troy—although I’m sure he’d take a scholarship, too:
It’s tough to know what to make of this game. Taking a top-five team to double overtime sure seems like a tally in the Texas Is Back column—and boy, do people really want things to put in the Texas Is Back column—but the Longhorns did lose, and are now 1-2 with a loss to a lacrosse school. And despite USC’s undefeated record and top-five ranking, each of their three wins raises questions: The Trojans played Western Michigan to a deadlock through three quarters, their dominant win over ranked Stanford is now tainted by the Cardinal’s loss to San Diego State, and they looked stumped by a Longhorn defense they should have devoured.
But Saturday night, we didn’t really need to make anything of it. Texas playing USC felt like Texas playing USC, even if Texas just got Terped and USC has a lot to prove. Last year Texas hosted Notre Dame in Austin and played in a 50-47 thriller that was one of my favorite games of the year. Both teams ended up below .500, but the viewing experience was great.
Most of the time, I consider myself a fan of the college football underdog. I heavily endorsed rowing the boat, I root for anybody but Alabama to win. But there is something special about the marquee matchup between blue bloods—teams with big names, big stadiums, and big TV ratings. (Please, continue playing games at teams’ home stadiums rather than neutral sites.) College football has a billion bonkers games a week, but context is key. This game was the highlight of the college football weekend because Texas is Texas and USC is USC, even if Vince Young was just a flashback on a film reel.