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Rose Bowl Magic: Breaking Down the USC Comeback

The key moments in USC’s incredible win over Penn State.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California
JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catch in the 4th quarter gave new life to the Trojans.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

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The 103rd Rose Bowl has already been described with a long line of superlatives. Thrilling. Dramatic. Classic. One of the best ever.

What made it so unbelievable was the fact that as we entered the fourth quarter, it looked like the game was over. If USC were to have any chance at all, just about everything was going to have to go right. And somehow, it did.

In the aftermath, fans on both sides were stunned, each asking the same question. How did that just happen? It’s worth a look back to find out. Here now is a sequence which will be relived by Trojan fans for years to come - the key plays in the final quarter of USC’s improbable victory.

4th Quarter

8:28 – It’s the play that changed everything. With the Trojans trailing 49-35, Sam Darnold - in the face of a charging Nittany Lion - lofted a deep pass towards the corner. As the ball hung in the air, so did the hopes of the USC faithful. A tightly defended JuJu Smith-Schuster reached up with one hand and made the catch, but officials ruled him out of bounds. Instant replay showed that he had managed to keep his right foot in while securing the ball. The call was reversed, and the Trojans resumed play at the 3-yard line.

8:15 - On the next play, Ronald Jones II cut through the line and scampered into the end zone. His touchdown run capped off a 10-play, 83-yard drive. And just like that, it was a game again.

Score: Penn State 49 - USC 42

NCAA FOOTBALL: JAN 02 Rose Bowl - USC v Penn State
Michael Hutchings and the USC defense came up with the big play when they needed it most.
Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

6:52 – With renewed energy, USC’s defense came up big, stuffing the Penn State run and setting up a 3rd and long. Then they caught a break when a Trace McSorely pass sailed over the head of his receiver. The three-and-out gave USC the ball with plenty of time, but the ensuing drive stalled early (thanks in part to a false start penalty), and the Trojans had no choice but to punt. With 3:56 to play, it started looking like the game might be out of reach after all.

3:03 – As the clock dwindled, Penn State worked to salt things away. It appeared they would spoil the comeback – especially when Saquon Barkley found a hole on the right side, moving the chains for the Lions with only three minutes remaining. Another first down would have sewn it up for sure. But on 3rd and 4, with 2:16 to go, Michael Hutchings made one of the plays of the year. Barkley went right again, but was chased down by Hutchings, who pushed him into the backfield for a 7-yard loss. Penn State was forced to punt, and Darnold and the Trojans were given one more chance.

1:59 – The Drive. It started with an 11-yard pass to Juju along the sideline. On the next snap, Darnold connected with Daniel Imatorbhebhe up the middle – first down again. Then, on a night in which every call seemed to go against them, USC got two. Back-to-back pass interference penalties moved the ball 30 yards further down field, stopping the clock each time. It set up the play that will go down as one of the greats in USC lore. With the Trojans now on the Penn State 27, Sam Darnold – patient and poised as always in the pocket – stepped up and threw a missile down the middle of the field, over the heads of two defenders, and into the hands of Deontay Burnett. It was Burnett’s third TD of the day. In less than a minute, USC had tied the game.

Score: USC 49 – Penn State 49

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State
Sam Darnold was unreal, throwing for over 400 yards and five touchdowns.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

1:20 – USC kicked off with the stadium still in a frenzy. Overtime looked likely, but there was one more twist to come in this wild and crazy finish.

0:38 – After dropping a sure interception on the previous play, safety Leon McQuay stepped in front of another wobbly McSorely pass. This time he made no mistake, and after a leaping grab, tip-toed down the sideline to put the Trojans in field goal range.

0:27 – The Trojans ran one play and then drained the clock to five seconds. Despite missing earlier in the game from 51 and 49, Kicker Matt Boermeester looked as cool as the January night as he stepped up to take the 46-yarder. It was good as soon as he kicked it. The ball spilt the uprights as time expired and the celebration began.

Thrilling. Dramatic. Classic. The best Rose Bowl ever.

Final Score: USC 52 – Penn State 49

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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