The Unbelievably True Story of the Greatest Rose Bowl Game in the Modern Era

The unbelievably true story of one of the greatest Rose Bowl Games in history as the USC Trojans complete a fairy tale comeback over the Penn State Nittany Lions.

The 'Grandaddy of Them All' lived up to the hype.

In 2006, Texas Longhorns quarterback Vince Young ran into the end zone on fourth down to stun USC and complete one of the most dramatic comebacks in Rose Bowl history.

Eleven years later, the Trojans got vindication.

Matt Boermeester kicked a 46-yard field goal as time expired and the USC Trojans shocked the Penn State Nittany Lions, 52-49, in what may go down as the greatest Rose Bowl Game in history.

It was certainly the highest scoring.

The two teams entered the game on a combined 17-game winning streak, and scored 101 total points — a Rose Bowl record — shattering the previous mark of 83 set by Oregon and Wisconsin in 2012.

It was a dark and ominous sky to start the game as the anxiety of the fans, both the ones who traveled from Pennsylvania, and the ones who drove up the 210 Freeway, hung over the historic stadium like an impenetrable cloud. 


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Maybe it was the fact that the first ever game played at this stadium was the 1923 Rose Bowl by both teams, which gave off an aura that we were in for an instant classic. 

Junior Trace McSorley started the game with an interception on each of his first two pass attempts and before the Goodyear blimp even got to Pasadena, the Trojans were out to an early 13-0, first quarter lead. 

"Early on, I thought he struggled a little bit," Penn State head coach James Franklin said of his quarterback. "We turned the ball over too much. You can't turn the ball over against good opponents and have a chance to win."

McSorley would settle in, and like a heavyweight fight, both teams took turns exchanging knockout blows as they combined to score touchdowns on five straight possessions to end the first half as the Trojans took a 27-21 lead into the locker room.

"We hate first halves. We've hated them all year long," said Franklin at halftime. "We've got to continue to get our playmakers the ball."

They did.

The Nittany Lions opened up the second half by putting together a human highlight reel, featuring two of their biggest offensive superstars.

First, it was Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Saquon Barkley, who took Penn State's first snap of the second half all the way to the house, breaking ankles along the way, as he scampered for a 79-yard touchdown run, the longest run from scrimmage USC allowed all season.

"Coach told me someone's got to come up and make a play, and I took that personally," Barkley said of his amazing run. "The O-line blocked it perfectly and got me one-on-one with a guy and I was able to make him miss." 

Minutes later, it was the Lions leading receiver, Chris Godwin, who made a jaw-dropping, juggling catch that led to a 72-yard touchdown, also the longest reception allowed by USC all season.

"Godwin's made plays all year long," added Franklin "He reached back behind him and made an unbelievable catch, the bobble for the touchdown. He's a special player, there's no doubt about that."

After an interception by freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, placed the ball on the USC three-yard line, Penn State struck again on a quarterback keeper by McSorley and Penn State had scored an inconceivable three touchdowns on three plays in less than three minutes to take a commanding, 42-27 lead.

All said and done, Penn State scored 28 points in the third quarter, and recorded touchdowns on an unconscious seven straight possessions as their reputation as a second half team was on full display.

The Trojans had awoken a sleeping giant and it would take a long, 10-play touchdown drive from Darnold to receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for USC to finally stop the bleeding and get back in the game.

With the mellowing hand of time slowly ticking away, the Trojans found themselves down 49-35 with 8:15 left to play in the game, and a deflated Cardinal and Gold crowd left holding their collective breaths. 

But the Trojans weren't done with this extravagant and entertaining edition of the 103rd Rose Bowl. Personifying the school's mantra of "Fight On," USC scored back-to-back touchdowns to tie the game with 1:20 left on the clock.

"These kids that I've had the honor to coach, they are the definition of 'fight on'," said USC head coach Clay Helton. "This game kind of just signified what our whole season has been, about never quit, keep competing and good things will happen to you."

On the ensuing Penn State drive, McSorley's third down pass was intercepted near the sideline by senior Leon McQuay III and the Trojans suddenly had a chance to immortalize one of the greatest games in College Football history, a heart-stopper that will live in infamy. 

"You can't turn the ball over in that situation," said Franklin after the loss. "Obviously there was a discussion to run the ball and play for overtime. That's not really who we've been all year long."

Boermeester calmly drilled the game-winner, sending the sold-out stadium into chaos and pandemonium as players sprinted and celebrated on the field as fireworks and confetti rained down upon their beaten, but victorious bodies.

"Credit to the whole team. They're the one's who gave me that opportunity," said Boermeester. "To kick that game-winner, validates our entire season." 

As the rose pedals lay trampled on the turf, the Trojans had arisen from the ashes triumphant, while breaking multiple records in the process.

The victory was USC's record 33rd Rose Bowl trophy and it extended their winning streak to nine games, the third longest active streak in College Football. 

Darnold threw for a career-high 453 yards, and a Rose Bowl record five touchdowns.

"What ultimate game maturity this young man has as a redshirt freshman," Helton said of Darnold after the game. "I love the quiet confidence about him. You never saw his demeanor change tonight. It was an amazing game. It's what fairy tales are made of."

Sophomore Deontay Burnett finished with a career-high 13 receptions for 164 yards and three touchdowns, including a game-tying, 26-yard catch and score.

"Practice makes perfect," Burnett said of how he and Darnold were able to connect throughout the game. "It's surreal it's a dream come true." 

Penn State has nothing to hang their heads about as they were sensational through the second and third quarters. 

"These guys should have their chin held high, their chest out, because of what we've been able to accomplish this year from the beginning to the end is really the story," finished Franklin. "Tonight may have been the most exciting Rose Bowl Game ever." 

McSorley threw for 254 yards and finished with four touchdowns and three interceptions. 

Godwin put up video game numbers, hauling in nine catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns. Not to be outdone, Barkley rushed for 194 yards on 25 carries and two scores.

The magical seasons for both teams who were virtual mirror images of each other in 2016 comes to an end, but both programs are on the rise and could be ready to compete for National Championships for years to come.

Like the embodiment of a perfect rose, these two teams did not disappoint.

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