Defensive backs don’t last long — not in major college football, not in any kind of football — unless they have exceedingly short memories.
So Leon McQuay III could not spend more than a moment or two kicking himself over the nearly certain interception he had just let slip through his hands.
Lining up in a cover-2 defense, McQuay saw the cornerback on his side of the field jump the receiver’s route, so he moved to provide coverage over the top. As the pass sailed toward the sideline, he tried to break at just the right angle.
“Next-play mentality,” he said. “I just wanted to make the play.”
There would be no second drop for McQuay, whose last-minute interception and return set up the Trojans’ game-winning field goal in an improbable 52-49 comeback victory on Monday.
Much of the postgame attention focused on quarterback Sam Darnold, who set a Rose Bowl record with five touchdown passes. And on Matt Boermeester, who provided the final three points from 46 yards out.
Certainly, no one on the USC defense could boast of a dominant performance after a game in which Penn State amassed 465 yards and seven touchdowns.
This was more a story of resilience, of surviving a nightmarish third quarter and finding some kind of resolve in the closing minutes.
“It was the scariest and the craziest,” nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu said. “We knew that time was coming down to the end and we just wanted to win.”
The game had started well enough for USC, with the Trojans intercepting the first two passes Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley threw and building a 27-21 halftime lead.
Then came their worst 15 minutes since, perhaps, the season opener against Alabama.
On Penn State’s first possession of the third quarter, running back Saquon Barkley headed right, broke a handful of tackles, then veered across the field and ran down the sideline for a 79-yard touchdown.
“I think he shredded everybody on our defense on that play,” safety Chris Hawkins said.
Barely a minute later, after a USC punt, McSorley lofted a pass down the sideline. The ball was tipped by Trojans cornerback Iman Marshall and corralled by Penn State receiver Chris Godwin, who sprinted 72 yards for another score.
A Darnold interception then led to a three-yard McSorley touchdown run.
“Coach [James] Franklin told me someone’s got to come up and make a play, and I kind of took that personally,” Barkley said. “From then on … we got it going.”
Just that quickly — three plays, three scores — the Nittany Lions had burst to a 42-27 lead.
Hawkins recalled thinking: Can we get a break?
It wasn’t luck or even a strategic adjustment that turned things around. It was a case of the Trojans settling down.
“Don’t try to do too much,” defensive end Rasheem Green said. “Just do your assignment.”
Barkley, who was on his way to 194 yards rushing, had darted for long gains by staying patient, waiting for holes to open when defenders over-pursued. The Trojans made sure to maintain their gaps and keep containment on the edges.
That discipline translated into a crucial third-down stop with 2:08 remaining when the defensive front bounced Barkley outside and linebacker Michael Hutchings dived to tackle him for a seven-yard loss.
“He had been killing us outside all day,” Hutching said. “I just had to lay it out.”
The Trojans scored to tie it at 49-49 with 1:20 left.
The Nittany Lions’ offense had shuddered to a standstill in the fourth quarter, gaining only 14 yards.
And after McQuay dropped that first should-have-been interception on a pass that McSorley floated high and soft, Hawkins doubted Penn State would risk another try downfield.
“Were they really going to throw it up two times when we’re in prevent defense?” he marveled afterward.
Tu’ikolovatu didn’t quite believe it when he saw the next throw and watched McQuay jump to snatch it along the sideline.
“I didn’t know whether to block or celebrate,” he said. “I did both.”
McQuay raced 33 yards to set up Boermeester’s kick two snaps later. He figured the significance of his big play on a big stage might take a while to sink in.
An hour after the game, after the trophy ceremony, the senior was still in defensive-back mode.
“Just keep playing,” he said. “I knew it was going to be all right.”