College football has, somehow, survived more than 11 years without USC playing Texas, and Saturday night it was a wonder anyone could live that long without it. The matchup has produced heroes and despair, iconic finishes and a life’s worth of stories.
Deep into another wild Los Angeles evening, it gave us Chase McGrath, a walk-on freshman kicker from Newport Beach, staring down 43 yards in double overtime. In the third field goal attempt of his career.
His first one had missed. His second one had saved USC and sent the game into overtime.
His third whizzed into the night and through the uprights, 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 of college football’s most storied programs.
Moments earlier, Texas was on the doorstep when 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.
All USC needed was a field goal. The offense didn’t make it easy. Afterward, the team chanted McGrath’s name in the locker room. Then, center Nico Falah said, his teammates yelled, “Give him a scholarship.”
“What an unbelievable job,” coach Clay Helton said.
Saturday was not quite a reprise of the classic 2006 Rose Bowl. USC (3-0) was an overwhelming favorite. Texas (1-2) is no longer a power.
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. There were more drops, for USC, than a bad techno song. There was a successful Texas fake punt, called back for an unnecessary holding flag. There were questionable play calls, two more USC 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.
There was USC running back Ronald Jones II, who admitted afterward that he wasn’t sure how overtime worked.
He found out.
USC never trailed until near the end of regulation, and its defense had given up only three points, when Texas mounted a late drive.
On a fourth and 10, the game on the line, Ehlinger hit Armanti Foreman over the middle, a yard past the sticks. 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 remained. Again, Texas had broken USC’s heart.
There was a major difference from 2006, however. This time, USC had Sam Darnold.
It was not the sophomore’s best game. He still mounted a signature drive. Starting from USC’s own 35-yard line, without timeouts, 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.
“He’s that good,” safety Chris Hawkins said of Darnold. “He always finds us a way.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever forget in my life. It was the best two-minute drive I’ve ever been associated with,” Helton said.
With time expiring, USC turned to McGrath, whose college field-goal experience boiled down to one attempt, missed, in the first half from 46 yards.
But McGrath made the 31-yard kick to send the game into overtime.
Darnold and Burnett connected on the first play of overtime from 25 yards to give the Trojans the lead. Texas responded with a three-yard touchdown pass to Cade Brewer to send the game into its second overtime.
Darnold finished 28 of 49 for 397 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
USC had mostly controlled the play for much of the game. The Trojans outgained Texas 468 yards to 366. But mistakes zapped the rhythm from both teams. 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. McGrath missed a field goal.
Near the end of the half, Burnett added a touch of the sublime into the disjointed first half with another full extension diving catch for a touchdown, his second such play in two games. He finished with eight receptions for 123 yards and two scores
With 30 seconds left in the half, USC could have taken a knee, content to emerge out of the slop with a 7-0 lead. Instead, Helton decided to gamble. He let Darnold loose.
Darnold hit receiver Jalen Greene square on a crossing route. Greene tipped the ball into the air for USC’s fifth drop of the half. DeShon Elliott plucked it just above the grass and went 38 yards for the score.
Again, with 10 seconds left, Helton could have ordered Darnold to take a knee, to avoid further catastrophe. Again, he let Darnold loose. This time, Darnold found Jones camped in a yawning 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.
The action in both halves, it turned out, was at the very end. Who would expect anything less when USC meets Texas?
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand