College football has, somehow, lasted more than 11 years without playing , and Saturday night it was a wonder anyone could survive that long without it. The matchup has given us heroes and despair, iconic finishes and a life’s worth of stories.
Deep into another wild Los Angeles evening, it gifted us Chase McGrath, a walk-on freshman kicker — a beach kid, from Newport Beach, staring down 43 yards in double-overtime in the third-ever field goal attempt of his career.
The ball whizzed into the night, and No. 4 USC defeated Texas, 27-24, in a game that fried nerves, defied expectations and, again, lived up to the might of two powerful programs.
Moments earlier, USC defensive lineman Christian Rector ripped the ball free from Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger near the goal line. Defensive back Ajene Harris pounced on the ball and held it aloft like a trophy.
At moments, the game looked familiar. Texas had the ball deep in USC territory, trailing late. But Saturday’s game was not quite a reprise of the classic Rose Bowl in 2006. In fact, the game was a woozy, staggering mess. If the game were a friend, you’d call it a cab and send it home to sleep it off.
There were six turnovers total. There were more drops, for No. 4 USC, than a bad techno song. There was a Texas fake punt, successful, called back for an unnecessary holding flag. There were questionable play calls, a missed field goal, head-scratching punt returns from the one-inch line, two more Sam Darnold interceptions and a slew of injuries. There was a rash of penalties. There was USC’s odd game management at the end of the first half and wasted timeouts in the second half.
And there was Texas again, with a fourth-quarter drive to break USC’s heart.
USC’s defense had given up just three points all game, and USC led by four. But Ehlinger hit Armanti Foreman over the middle, a yard past the sticks, and a play later he rolled out and found Foreman again, wide open in the end zone to go ahead, 17-14. It was a 17-yard pass at the end of a 91-yard drive. Only 45 seconds remaining.
There was one major difference. This time around, USC had a quarterback from San Clemente named Sam Darnold.
It was not Darnold’s best game. He still mounted a signature drive. Darnold completed a pass to Deontay Burnett. First down. Darnold completed a pass, jumping, defenders in his face, to Stephen Carr. First down. Darnold completed a pass to Stephen Mitchell, all the way into the red zone. First down.
With time expiring, USC turned to McGrath, whose college field-goal experience was all of one attempt, in the first half of this game. He missed.
But McGrath made the 31-yard kick, sending the game into overtime.
Darnold and Burnett needed just one play in the first overtime to connect on their favorite route — 25 yards over the middle, toward the end of a classic.
Texas responded with a three-yard touchdown pass to Cade Brewer.
Darnold finished 28 of 49 with 397 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
For much of the game, USC had controlled the play — 468 yards to 366 — but mistakes zapped momentum.
A week ago, USC pulverized Stanford for 307 yards on the ground … then couldn’t find room to breathe against Texas. The Trojans opted instead for a wave of empty backfield sets early. Play-action disappeared. Not that the ground game was commanding much respect. USC ran the ball 37 times for just 71 yards.
And so the game began lurchy, like two automatic teams suddenly stuck with stick shifts.
On the first drive of the game, the Trojans went for it on fourth down. They failed.
On the second drive of the game, the Longhorns went for it on fourth down. They failed.
On the third drive of the game, the Trojans tried, once again, on fourth down from the one-yard line. Again, they failed.
And then, more nonsense. Texas’ very next play ended in an acrobatic Jack Jones interception. USC went backward and punted. Texas fumbled, and USC recovered. USC missed a field goal.
Burnett added a touch of the sublime into a brutal, disjointed first half with another full extension diving catch for a touchdown, his second such play in two games. He finished with another stellar game with eight receptions for 123 yards and two scores.
At the end of the first half, USC could have taken a knee, and run to the locker room content to emerge out of the slop with a 7-0 lead. Instead, Coach Clay Helton decided to gamble. With 30 seconds left, he let Darnold loose.
It was a risk because USC’s receivers were doing Darnold no favors. USC dropped five passes in the first half. For perspective, Darnold threw five incompletions, total, against Stanford.
On the fifth, disaster struck. Darnold hit receiver Jalen Greene square on a crossing route. Greene flubbed the catch. The ball tipped into the air. DeShon Elliott plucked it just above the grass and went 38 yards for the score.
Again, Helton could’ve ordered Darnold to take a knee, to avoid further catastrophe. Again, he let Darnold loose. This time, with time expiring, Darnold found Ronald Jones II camped in a wide pocket vacated by Texas’ prevent defense. Jones needed one cutback and one crushing block from Steven Mitchell Jr., and he had a free path to the end zone.
USC ended the bizarre sequence in a draw, but it had the lead.
The action in both halves, it turned out, was at the very end.
Who would expect anything less when USC meets Texas?
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