LOS ANGELES – The sidelines of USC and Texas on Saturday night teemed with football folklore from a pre-HD era. Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart, former Texas quarterback Vince Young and enough A-list celebrities like Matthew McConaughey crowded around to rekindle the vibe of those good old days. Squint, and you could see the sun-kissed 2005 season all over again – Reggie Bush helicoptering into the end zone, LenDale White grinding between the tackles and Young slaloming into the Rose Bowl end zone.
The relentless build-up to this stripped-down version of unranked Texas and No. 4 USC came heavy on the nostalgia and light on expectations. The Longhorns trudged in as 17-point underdogs, humbled by a thumping by Maryland in their opener.
But what unfolded in USC’s 27-24 double-overtime victory proved both equal parts fitful and fabulous, three dreary quarters capped by a finish that rivals UCLA’s frantic Rose Bowl comeback against Texas A&M for the season’s most memorable.
USC kicker Chase McGrath, a freshman walk-on, drilled a 43-yard field goal in double overtime to seal the game for the Trojans, and sprinted away from his teammates and into USC lore. Suddenly, a game awash with throwback mythology ended with a dramatic legacy of its own. “You’re going to have to win one of these games,” USC coach Clay Helton said, “when you’re trying to win a championship.”
This victory extends USC’s winning streak to 12, the second longest streak in the country behind Oklahoma. And it continues a brand tour de force, as their last eight victories have been against Oregon, Washington (road), UCLA (road), Notre Dame, Penn State, Western Michigan, Stanford and Texas. We’ll debate whether these Trojans could go toe-to-toe with Alabama and Clemson later. But for now, USC is as well positioned to win a national title as any point since Pete Carroll left Troy for Seattle in 2010. “They’re the fastest team I’ve seen on video in my career,” Texas coach Tom Herman told Yahoo Sports. “That’s a sign that you’re back when you have dudes all over the place that can run.”
Another sign that you’re back is when you play an ugly, sputtering and inconsistent game and still manage to come away with a victory that captures the college football world. How do you sum up USC’s victory over Texas? The Trojans controlled nearly all of the game, yet needed Sam Darnold to lead furious drives at the end of the second quarter and the final 45 seconds of regulation to force overtime. Helton’s pithy summary of the game won’t become a T-Shirt, but certainly resonates as a fitting synopsis of a strange night: “Ugly wins count, too.”
The drive that will be seared into Helton’s memory came at the end of regulation. Trailing 17-14, Darnold took the Trojans 52 yards on eight plays in 39 seconds with no timeouts to tie the game. That included a bit of improvisational mastery that could end up on a Heisman highlight reel, as Darnold executed a jump pass to tailback Stephen Carr for 21 yards with star Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson swiping at his legs. “It was instinctual,” Darnold said.
Darnold finished the game 28-for-49 for 397 yards and three touchdowns. He threw two interceptions, including a pick-six that went straight through the hands of receiver Jalen Greene. But those 52 yards in the cauldron of desperation will stay with Helton for a long time. Darnold to Deontay Barnett (123 yards) for 13, leaping and throwing to Carr for 21 and then hitting Steven Mitchell for 18 yards to set up the other pressure kick – a 31-yarder – that McGrath calmly drilled. Helton joked later he needs to find a scholarship for McGrath, but he was serious when he spoke of how long that drive will stay with him. “I don’t know if I’ll ever forget [it] in my life,” Helton said. “That’s the best two-minute drive I’ve ever been associated with. To go that far with that little time, you hope for perfect execution and that’s what you got. Guys that were poised and who practiced that situation.”
A Texas team that gave up 51 points to Maryland two weeks ago looked like the second coming of the 1985 Bears for most of the night, but suffered two giant lapses in the waning seconds of both halves that will haunt them. The first came late in the second quarter after Texas had tied the game on DeShon Elliott’s interception return. Darnold dropped back for a Hail Mary toss to the end zone, but ended up scrambling and settling for a lob dump to Ronald Jones. He streaked across the field for a 56-yard touchdown with no time left on the clock, and Darnold made sure to point out Mitchell’s vicious open-field block on Texas safety John Bonney to free up Jones.
“College football is hard,” Helton said. “You’re going to have games like this.”
So what to make of this Trojans win? If the Longhorns had beaten Maryland in the opener, there probably would have been talk of moving USC to No. 1. Since Texas lost that game, there’s chatter of this victory hurting the Trojans. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, as a donnybrook with Texas should count more than a thumping of a school like Fresno State.
The vibe from the Texas locker room was one of deep disappointment, as Herman made clear afterwards there were no moral victories. But this may be remembered at Texas as the night the underdog mojo Herman created at Houston finally made its way to Austin. Texas played hard and physical and fearless. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando kept finding answers, as USC averaged 1.9 yards per carry and went 0-for-3 on fourth downs. Herman kept taking risks – trick plays, a fake punt and an early fourth-down gamble. The Longhorns played free and easy like Herman’s Cougars, and it felt right.
Texas true freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger (21-for-40, 298 yards, two TDs and two INTs) settled down in the second half, built some confidence and led the Longhorns on a 91-yard drive to take the lead with 45 seconds left. “To be in a position to win the game, I think that says a lot how far we’ve grown up as a team in the last two weeks,” Herman said. He added later a summary of the general Texas takeaway from a night when the Longhorns found an identity and edge: “If we play every team in the Big 12 as hard and physical as we played this team tonight… we’re going to have a shot to win some games.”
Texas’ upset bid was ultimately foiled by USC sophomore Christian Rector. The 6-foot-4, 276-pound defensive lineman reached to the midsection of Ehlinger at the goal line in double-overtime and ripped the ball out, his paw like a cleaver unearthing a chunk of dirt in a garden. The recovery set up McGrath’s final heroics, which sent the USC sideline spilling onto the field.
In the end, the student section stuck around to dance, as the band played and the party rolled on. An ugly victory still makes for a great party, and USC is back as the rollicking, swashbuckling and seminal West Coast team we remember from more than a decade ago.
The football ghosts that hovered The Coliseum sideline found real-time foils. Darnold, McGrath, Jones and Barnett all made plays the old-timers in The Coliseum will be talking about for decades.
The good news is we don’t need to wait another decade. USC and Texas play next season in Austin in Week 3, a game that will surely spawn a lot of recollections of the improbabilities and anomalies we saw here tonight.
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