The 43-yard field goal sailed through the uprights and the Coliseum was filled with screams of joy, shrieks of wonder and overpowering sighs of relief.
But it didn’t. Not here. Not now. This time, the Trojans avoided heartbreak, steamrolled over history, and hooked ’em.
This time, the Trojans survived and stayed upright in their unbeaten season with a 27-24 two-overtime victory over Texas on a night filled with equal parts terror and triumph.
Terror in that they nearly blew it. Triumph in that they ended up stealing it.
“We gave it all we had, they gave it all they had,” USC quarterback Sam Darnold said. “It was just a great win for our guys.”
If the 2006 Rose Bowl was the greatest college game ever, as many have proclaimed, then this long-awaited encore was the greatest ugliest and drama-filled game of this season.
It was USC holding a 14-10 lead through most of the second half. It was a last-minute Texas drive to swipe the lead with 45 seconds remaining. But then, with no timeouts, it was Darnold completing three long passes to three different targets to drive the Trojans 52 yards to set up the tying 31-yard field goal by Chase McGrath, the first field goal of the freshman’s college career, as the clock ticked zero.
“So proud of them that when the lights were their brightest, they executed,” USC coach Clay Helton said.
Now it was overtime, and now it really got wild. It was an opening-play, 25-yard touchdown pass from Darnold to Deontay Burnett on the first play of the extra period. But then it was the Longhorns responding with a three-yard pass from Sam Ehlinger to Cade Brewer to tie it up.
“The plays down the stretch by Sam and Deontay, I don’t know if I’ll ever forget that in my life,” Helton said.
In the second overtime, Christian Rector stripped Ehlinger of the ball and Ajene Harris recovered it. This was the stealing part. Then it was USC’s turn, and the Trojans gained only one yard but it was enough to set up McGrath’s game-winning field goal.
So, yeah, finally, USC survived Texas. Finally, the Trojans, now 3-0, endured their stumbles, overcame their confusion and willed their way home. On this night, finally, the Trojans were the ones dancing.
Will this affect the fourth-ranked Trojans in those rankings? It shouldn’t. Texas is a power conference team that clearly plays power-conference football, and the Trojans kept Texas out of the end zone until the final minute of regulation..
Should this worry Trojans fans about their chances of stumbling in their remaining nine games, five of which are on the road beginning at California next weekend? Well, um, maybe a little.
Until the final minute and overtime, Darnold was having trouble communicating with his receivers, just like in the season opener against Western Michigan. He threw for three touchdowns, but also had two interceptions. Then there were the struggles of the three running backs, none of whom gained more than 50 yards or scored.
It was, in all, a breathtaking ending to a mostly unsightly night. The Trojans stumbled. The Longhorns tripped. The Trojans swung and missed. The Longhorns ducked and fell.
The Trojans gained more yards, but also did it more painfully, with six dropped passes, three failed fourth-down conversions, two interceptions, a missed field-goal try, and an allowed touchdown on a 38-yard interception return.
All of which makes the winning much sweeter, according to Helton, who certainly hopes the watchful playoff committee agrees.
“That’s what great teams do,” Helton said. “They have one of these games and they find a way to win.”
This was never more evident than on the last play of the first half, on a play whose willpower resonated the rest of the game.
The Longhorns were apparently content to run into the Coliseum tunnel in a stunning halftime tie. Yet, the Trojans had one more breath and were determined to use it.
And so, in the final ticks of the first half of a messy night, USC’s will turned dreadful into spectacular.
Darnold scrambled right. Ronald Jones II was wide open downfield. Darnold found him with a laser around the Texas 35-yard line. The Longhorns, who had just been hanging out, suddenly paid attention, but it was too late.
Jones sprinted left around desperately scurrying defenders, Steven Mitchell Jr. threw a huge block, and Jones dashed into the corner of the end zone for the completion of a 56-yard touchdown pass.
The clock read 0:00. But the scoreboard was a little more full, reading 14-7 Trojans, and their excited dash into the locker room was as inspired as the play.
“There’s going to be days like these,” Helton said. “You have to fight to win games.”
On a cool night with a nearly full Coliseum in front of another marquee program, it was almost as USC had to first get rid of a little stage fright.
Vince Young was standing on the Coliseum sidelines, a haunting vision from that 11-year-old heartbreak. Nearby stood Matthew McConaughey, waving two fingers, reminding his team that everything would be all right, all right, all right. (Sorry, couldn’t resist). Next to him was Roger Clemens, staring down with the heat.
But in the end, it was the Trojans who brought that heat.
“Ugly wins count too,” Helton said. “We’re fortunate to walk out of here with one.”