A grateful Clay Helton after USC’s big win over Texas
Another USC-Texas classic as No. 4 Trojans escape
College football has, somehow, lasted more than eleven years without USC playing Texas, and Saturday night it was a wonder anyone could survive that long without it. The matchup has given us heroes and despair, iconic finishes and a life’s worth of stories.
Deep into another wild Los Angeles evening, it gifted us Chase McGrath, a walk-on freshman kicker — a beach kid, from Newport Beach, staring down 43 yards in double-overtime in the third-ever field goal attempt of his career.
The ball whizzed into the night, 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 powerful programs.
Moments earlier, USC 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.
At moments, the game looked familiar. Texas had the ball deep in USC territory, trailing late. But Saturday’s game was not quite a reprise of the classic Rose Bowl in 2006. 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 total. There were more drops, for No. 4 USC, than a bad techno song. There was a Texas fake punt, successful, called back for an unnecessary holding flag. There were questionable play calls, a missed field goal, head-scratching punt returns from the one-inch line, two more Sam Darnold 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.
And there was Texas again, with a fourth-quarter drive to break USC’s heart.
USC’s defense had let up just three points all game, and USC led by four. But Texas quarterback Ehlinger hit Armanti Foreman over the middle, a yard past the sticks, and 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 remaining.
There was one major difference. This time around, USC had a quarterback from San Clemente named Sam Darnold.
It was not Darnold’s best game. He still mounted a signature drive. 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.
With time expiring, USC tuned to walk-on freshman kicker Chase McGrath. McGrath’s college field-goal experience boiled of one field goal, in the first half of this game. He missed.
But McGrath made the 31-yard kick. His first collegiate make sent the game into overtime.
Darnold and Burnett needed just one play in the first overtime to connect on their favorite route — 25 yards over the middle, toward the end of a classic.
Darnold finished 28 of 49 with 397 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Texas responded with a three-yard touchdown pass to Cade Brewer.
For much of the game, USC had controlled the play — 468 yards to 366 -- but mistakes zapped momentum.
A week ago, USC pulverized Stanford for 307 yards on the ground then… couldn’t find room to breathe against Texas. The Trojans opted instead for a wave of empty backfield sets early. Play-action disappeared. Not that the ground game was commanding much respect. USC ran the ball 37 times for just 71 yards.
And so 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, Texas 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. USC missed a field goal.
Deontay Burnett added a touch of the sublime into a brutal, disjointed first half with another full extension diving catch for a touchdown, his second such play in two games. He finished with another stellar game with eight receptions for 123 yards and two scores
At the end of the first half, USC could’ve taken a knee, and run to the locker room content to emerge out of the slop with a 7-0 lead. Instead, Coach Clay Helton decided to gamble. With 30 seconds left, he let Darnold loose.
It was a risk because USC’s receivers were doing Darnold no favors. USC dropped five passes in the first half. For perspective, Darnold threw five incompletions, total, against Stanford.
On the fifth, disaster struck. Darnold hit receiver Jalen Greene square on a crossing route. Greene flubbed the catch. The ball tipped into the air. DeShon Elliott plucked it just above the grass and absconded 38 yards for the score.
Again, Helton could’ve ordered Darnold to take a knee, to avoid further catastrophe. Again, he let Darnold loose. This time, with time expiring, Darnold found Ronald Jones II camped in a wide 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.
USC ended the bizarre sequence in a draw, but it had the lead.
The action in both halves, it turned out, was at the very end.
Who would expect anything less when USC meets Texas?
Chase McGrath nails the game-winner for USC, 27-24
Chase McGrath may have just earned a scholarship.
The freshman walk-on from Santa Ana Mater Dei drilled a 43-yard field goal in the second overtime as No. 4 USC escaped with a 27-24 win over Texas.
USC thwarts Texas at goal line in second overtime
Given the ball first in the second overtime, Texas looked like it was about to score again when Christian Rector made the biggest play of the season so far.
The defensive lineman stripped Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger of the ball at the one-yard line and Ajene Harris recovered for the Trojans.
If USC scores now, it’s over.
Ehlinger strikes again, and again and again for another tie
Sam Ehlinger is on fire for Texas.
After a run for no gain and a holding penalty had Texas going the wrong way on its overtime possession, Ehlinger completed three consecutive passes to tie the score again.
He connected with Collin Johnson for a 21-yard gain, Lorenzo Joe for 11 yards and Cade Brewer for three yards and a touchdown.
USC strikes quickly in overtime, takes 24-17 lead
USC struck quickly, scoring on a 25-yard pass from Sam Darnold to Deontay Burnett on the first play of the overtime period.
Walk-on kicker ties score for USC at end of regulation
Anyone who thought USC and Texas couldn’t replicate excitement close to the last time they met, think again.
OK, so the game isn’t for a national championship, but really, a freshman walk-on trying to make his first field goal as a college player ties the score with a 31-yard kick as time expires?
The freshman is USC’s Chase McGrath, a non-scholarship player from Santa Ana Mater Dei.
He missed earlier in the game from 46 yards out, but with the game on the line, he was perfect, forcing overtime.
USC got the ball with 45 seconds left after Velus Jones returned the kickoff 32 yards to USC’s 45.
The Trojans moved down the field on a pair of 21-yard gains, the first a Sam Darnold pass to Deontay Burnett, and the second a pass and run from Darnold to Stephen Carr.
Texas converts on fourth down twice and takes 17-14 lead
Sam Ehlinger connected with Armanti Foreman on a 28-yard touchdown pass with 45 seconds left in regulation and the extra point has Texas in the lead by three.
Ehlinger kept the drive alive twice on fourth downs.
First, he gained two yards on a keeper on fourth-and-one at the USC 28 at around the 3-minute mark.
He came through again with 1:19 left when -- on fourth-and-10, following three consecutive incomplete passes -- he hit Foreman for an 11-yard gain.
On the touchdown, Foreman was alone in the end zone after USC cornerback Jack Jones fell down.
USC gives and takes away early in fourth quarter, still up 14-10
USC gave Texas a scoring chance, then took it away.
DeShon Elliott, who scored earlier for the Longhorns on an interception return, came up with his second pick of the game when Sam Darnold badly overthrew wide-open tight end Tyler Petite at midfield.
Elliott returned the ball 24 yards to USC’s 25, but a few plays later, the Trojans came up with a pick of their own.
Under a heavy rush from Uchenna Nwosu, Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger rushed a throw toward tight end Cade Brewer that was intercepted by Marvell Tell III at the USC 20 with 9 minutes 21 seconds left in regulation.
Photos: USC vs. Texas
This is not good ... for USC
Texas trims USC lead to 14-10
Texas was held to 90 yards in total offense in the first half but just put together a nice little drive to get on the board on its first possession of the third quarter.
Joshua Rowland made his first field goal of the season after three misses, from 39 yards out.
Having converted only one of seven third-down situations in the first half, the Longhorns extended their drive twice on third down.
USC scores a stunning late touchdown to retake the lead
A bizarre first half ended in fittingly bizarre fashion.
After a costly error by USC, which resulted in a pick-six for Texas, the Trojans opted not to take a knee and head to the locker room with the score tied.
Instead, with seconds left, quarterback Sam Darnold lofted a long pass to Ronald Jones II, who’d found an open space in front of Texas’ prevent defense. With a cutback and a big Steven Mitchell Jr. block, Jones was free.
His score gave USC a 14-7 lead at the break and changed the momentum of a wild first half.
Texas interception return ties the score, 7-7
The Trojans decided to get greedy with 30 seconds left in the first half, and it cost them.
USC quarterback Sam Darnold found Jalen Greene open across the field and hit him in stride. But Greene couldn’t catch the pass.
It bounced off his hands, up into the air and into the hands of DeShon Elliott. Elliott returned it untouched down the sideline to tie the score, 7-7, with 19 seconds remaining in the half.
Finally, a score. USC leads 7-0
USC capitalized on good field position to score the game’s first points. Sam Darnold faked a tunnel screen, then found a diving Deontay Burnett in the back of the end zone.
Burnett made a second highlight-reel catch in as many games. USC leads Texas 7-0 with 2:40 remaining in the first half.
Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart honored at the game
Lots of action, no score after one quarter
USC and Texas picked up right where they left off in 2006 — with some memorable fourth downs.
USC went for it on its first drive. An incomplete pass turned the ball over on downs.
Texas then went for it. The Longhorns, too, were stopped.
USC’s next drive ended on the one-yard line, where Ronald Jones II was stopped, again on fourth down.
Texas finally ended the pattern ... with an interception on the very next play.
After a USC punt, Texas turned the ball over again, this time on a fumble.
Neither team scored. Neither team is likely to show the first quarter in any highlight reels.
Texas wins the coin toss and will defer
USC will start with the ball.
Half a century ago, a letter from the Duke
Here’s a bit of USC-Texas history: In 1966, USC played at Texas, and USC’s coach, John McKay, allowed a special guest to give the pre-game pep talk. The guest was a former USC football player.
His name was John Wayne.
USC won that game 10-6 and a week later, McKay received a letter from Wayne, who by then was filming the movie “The War Wagon.”
That letter, courtesy of McKay’s son, J.K. McKay, is pictured below. It hangs in USC’s football facilities. That part that’s tough to make out with the glare? It reads:
I think the Texas bunch were good losers, but tell the squad we don’t care whether their opponents are good losers or bad losers as long as they lose.
Injured linebacker Porter Gustin participates in warmups
There’s about an hour until USC and Texas kick off, and the big pre-game development is the health of Porter Gustin’s big toe. Gustin had surgery on Wednesday to insert two screws in his toe to repair a small fracture.
Coach Clay Helton said during the week he was not optimistic about Gustin’s availability against Texas. But Gustin was out on the field for warmups and appeared to move well and without a limp.
That does not guarantee he’ll play, but it’s a signal that it’s likely.
Trojans looking to stick with smash-mouth style against Longhorns
USC reprised a classic late in the third quarter of its opener two weeks ago. With two men in the backfield, the Trojans’ center and right guard pulled to the left side, forming the core of a phalanx of blockers. The running back swept in behind them.
USC was essentially running John McKay’s offensive staple, student-body right — only to the left.
“In honor to Coach McKay, that’ll never leave the playbook,” Trojans coach Clay Helton said.
It didn’t work out very well. A defensive lineman penetrated before center Nico Falah could get in position, and the defender gobbled up Velus Jones in the backfield. The play lost seven yards.
USC found more success with its own, updated scheme the next week against Stanford.
The Trojans’ running game torched the Cardinal, bullies of the Pac-12 Conference for the past decade, for 307 yards. USC’s offense lost yards on just one, non-kneel-down play, a one-yard sack of quarterback Sam Darnold. It was a dominant showing.
USC vs. Texas: How the teams match up in a rematch of the 2006 Rose Bowl Game
5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Coliseum
USC running backs Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr against Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson: Jones and Carr have been perhaps college football’s best running back duo. They’ve been difficult to tackle: Of Jones’ 275 rushing yards, 213 have come after contact, according to Trojans running backs coach Deland McCullough. Jefferson was a freshman All-American two seasons ago, an All-Big 12 selection last season and is Texas’ best defender.