PASADENA–With four minutes left in the 103rd Rose Bowl Game, USC trailed Penn State by a touchdown and had just punted the ball.
At that same time, a fan wearing USC gear walked out of Tunnel 18 and muttered with a sigh, "There's always next year."
On the field, an older gentleman with white hair carried the Rose Bowl trophy over to the Penn State sidelines with great care. Their championship gear had been opened, while on the other side of the field, USC's championship gear was being carted away quickly.
Penn State needed only a first down to seal it. The result seemed etched in stone, if not in hardware.
Until suddenly, it wasn't.
What was deemed impossible by the fan walking out of Tunnel 18 somehow became possible. A defensive stop, an 80-yard drive, a game-tying touchdown and an interception in the span of two minutes left the fate of the game up to Matt Boermeester's foot.
A foot that just one day before the game had been practicing game-winning kicks. Just 24 hours before, Boermeester and holder Wyatt Schmidt had joked about hitting a game-winning field goal in the Rose Bowl. Boermeester even said he would do a dab when he did it.
"I knew I was going to get an opportunity to kick that field goal," Boermeester said postgame.
With five seconds left, Boermeester trotted out onto the field, lined up to kick a 46-yard field goal and put it perfectly through the uprights to give USC a 52-49 victory and cap off a ridiculous, thrilling, roller coaster-like Rose Bowl Game.
"Oh, what a terrific football game," head coach Clay Helton said in his postgame press conference. "We're so worthy of a Rose Bowl Game."
On this gloomy afternoon in Pasadena, the "granddaddy of them all" was not about sticking to scripts. It was not for the faint of heart, nor the quick to judge. After all, what had transpired over the course of the matchup was a back-and-forth affair for the ages, a instant classic that left one team euphoric, the other devastated.
"That's the best game I've ever been to … that I've won," special teams coach John Baxter said with red eyes that had previously been filled with tears.
Boermeester's kick was the culminating fixture and the highlight that will be replayed for ages to come. Its lifeblood, however, were the plays that preceded it.
It began with two minutes left, when Michael Hutchings knew the play that had to be made. On third down and nine yards to go, if the Nittany Lions reached the first down marker, Penn State would run out the clock and win.
Running back Saquon Barkley already had over 200 yards to his name. On this key carry, though, Hutchings pounced and invaded the backfield before Barkley could even turn upfield. The result was a loss of seven yards that forced a punt.
"All we tried to do was give them a chance," Hutchings said of the defense. "Guys made plays in the clutch"
Clutch came down to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, the catalyst for USC's turnaround season and the primary architect behind their offensive success. Calm, cool and composed as always, Darnold trotted out onto the field with 1:59 left. "Let's go get it," he simply told his team in the huddle.
Aided by two pass interference penalties, Darnold went and got it himself, stealing the moment and owning the grand stage that would seem too big for a player his age. He hit wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for 11 yards. Then, it was tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe for 12 yards more.
USC, as its players say they do every Friday during the season,ran the 2-minute drill to perfection, culminating in a play that was both run incorrectly and perfectly at the same time: A game-tying touchdown pass to Deontay Burnett on a post route that Darnold perfectly placed in his hands.
"What [Burnett] is supposed to do is keep a straight line, not necessarily run a post like that," Darnold explained. "But the player that he is, he made a a play and I saw him."
Darnold finished the shootout with a line of a whopping 453 yards on 33 completions. His 53 pass attempts were his highest all season, but so were his five touchdowns, while his 473 total yards broke Vince Young's Rose Bowl record from 2006. Yet stats couldn't properly convey what was Darnold greatest value; whether USC was down or up, whether he had thrown a touchdown or an interception, Darnold, like he had done all season, remained the same.
"He was the same from the start of the game to the end of it," tight end Tyler Petite said. "I ran up to him and was telling him to smile, and he said, 'We haven't won yet.'"
Despite Darnold doing the required to solidify his place in Rose Bowl lore, the job wasn't yet done.
USC had been up by as many as 13. Penn State had been up by as many as 15, but with a minute left they were tied and overtime seemed all but a certainty. The Nittany Lions, however, had other plans. They wanted to go for the win.
On quarterback Trace McSorley's first deep throw, safety Leon McQuay III rushed at the chance. He got there in time, but his hands could not corral the ball. McSorley dropped back and tried again. This time, McQuay made sure he caught it and took it 32 yards into field goal territory. The interception sent the sideline into a frenzy, the fans into delirium and Boermeester to the hash mark for the completion of a memorable comeback.
"I was sure the kick was going in because he had already missed two in the game," said defensive MVP Stevie Tui'kolovatu. "The way the world works, we have to get one."
USC did not just overcome the improbability of the final two minutes. They shrugged off an ejection to one of their defensive leaders, an injury to their best all-around player and a defensive downfall that allowed seven straight scores at one point in the game.
"Our motto is 'Fight On'," McQuay said, matter-of-factly. "It wasn't like we were ever going to lose."
When a 1-3 season seemed all but lost, USC responded with an eight-game winning streak. When losing seemed all but certain to the fan walking out of Tunnel 18 at the Rose Bowl, USC gave themselves a close enough shot, a shot that would end up being just enough to redeem their 1-3 start and validate their entire season.