USC and Penn State played an instant classic in the Rose Bowl Monday night and already fans are pumping it up as one of the greatest games in college football history. While that’s a bit of a stretch, the contest was fantastic and featured so many twists and turns in a 52-49 Trojans victory that it’s one we’ll be talking about for a long time.
The Rose Bowl is no stranger to outstanding football games, and the 2017 edition was just another in a long line of fantastic contests. Here’s a look at the 10 greatest Rose Bowls of all-time and where this year’s version fits in. Not surprisingly, USC figures in to a lot of these games.
10. 1980: USC 17, Ohio State 16
Heisman Trophy winner Charles White rushed for a Rose Bowl record 247 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown with just more than a minute remaining. Ohio State entered the game No. 1 in the AP poll and No. 3 in the Coaches poll, while USC was third and second respectively. The Trojans big win didn’t earn them the national title though, as a 21-21 tie with Stanford earlier in the season left them at 10-0-1, which left them at No. 2 behind Alabama.
9. 1929: Georgia Tech 8, California 7
Now known as the “wrong way game,” this contest was a grinding battle that resulted in just 15 total points being scored. two of those points now live in infamy.
In the second quarter, Cl center Roy Riegels picked up a fumble by Georgia Tech’s Stumpy Thomason (great name) on the Yellow Jackets’ 30-yard-line. He somehow forgot where he was on the field and ran the wrong way, bolting 60 yards before teammate and quarterback Benny Lom caught up with him and pointed him in the wrong direction near Cal’s own three-yard line. It was too late, as a host of Tech tacklers brought him down at the 1-yard line. The Bears chose to punt on the next play, but Lom’s kick was blocked for a safety to give Tech a 2-0 lead.
Those two points wound up being the difference in the game, as each team scored just one touchdown. Georgia Tech’s win secured their second national championship.
8. 1941: Stanford 21, Nebraska 13
This game is memorable for one of the best plays in the history of the Rose Bowl. Stanford — then known as “the Indians” — drove down to Nebraska’s 1-yard line in the third quarter with a 14-13 lead. After an incredible goal-line stand by the Huskers, they opted to punt on first down rather than risk a safety by running a play. Stanford’s Pete Kmetovic fielded the punt at the 39-yard line and returned it for a touchdown, putting the game out of reach at 21-13.
The 1941 Rose Bowl is also famous for convincing the college football world that new Stanford coach Clark Shaughnessy’s revolutionary “T formation” was the future of the game. The win over Nebraska led to a transformation in offensive philosophy.
7. 1966: UCLA 14, Michigan State 12
No. 5 UCLA and No. 1 Michigan State clashed in the granddaddy’s 52nd edition and the Bruins stunned a Spartans team that appeared all but a lock for the national title. The two teams had played in the season-opener in East Lansing, with Michigan State winning 13-3.
UCLA’s sophomore quarterback Gary Beban was introduced to the nation during the Rose Bowl that year and he did not disappoint. With the game scoreless in the second quarter, Beban authored a pair of drives that each culminated in a one-yard rush from him. UCLA led 14-0 heading into the fourth quarter. The Spartans got on the board with a 38-yard touchdown run by Bob Apisa, but failed to convert the two-point conversion. Then quarterback Steve Juday scored on a one-yard run, but a second two-point attempt also failed.
The Spartans tried an onside kick but the Bruins recovered and ran out the clock, holding on for what was viewed as a miraculous victory. Beban went on to win the Heisman Trophy as a senior in 1967.
6. 2005: Texas 38, Michigan 37
This was the first “Vince Young Game” where the then-sophomore quarterback burst onto the national scene with a huge game. Young threw for 180 yards and ran for 192, while accounting for five touchdowns. On the other sideline, Chad Henne had himself quite a game, throwing for 227 yards and four touchdowns, three of which went to Braylon Edwards.
Michigan led 31-21 with 2:35 left in the third quarter, but Young led the Longhorns storming back, scoring rushing touchdowns of 10 and 23 yards in the fourth quarter. Texas won the game on a 37-yard Dusty Mangum field goal as time expired.
5. 1975: USC 18, Ohio State 17
This was yet another instant-classic as No. 5 USC defeated No. 3 Ohio State in a titanic matchup. John McKay’s Trojans bested Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes despite trailing for much of the game, and USC quarterback Pat Haden etched his name in college football lore with a lifetime-defining win.
USC trailed 17-10 late in the fourth quarter, but Haden engineered a stunning drive that culminated when he hit J.K. McKay on a perfect 38-yard touchdown pass. The coach’s son hauled in the heave in the corner of the end zone to stun the Buckeyes. Rather than kick the extra point and secure a sure tie, the Trojans went for two and Haden found Shelton Diggs in the end zone to convert the try.
4. 2017: USC 52, Penn State 49
It’s probably too soon after it happened to have proper perspective on what happened in the 2017 Rose Bowl, but I can say this with certainty: that game was absolutely bonkers. It truly had everything (except for great defense), with incredible sea changes in momentum, a ton of crazy individual plays, young players establishing themselves as stars and seniors making career-defining plays. It’s hard to focus on just one aspect of it, or run through it again because there’s so much there to dissect.
What follows is the abridged version of the craziness. First, USC jumped out to what looked like a commanding 13-0 lead. Then the teams traded impressive drives for the rest of the first half, culminating in a 27-21 Trojans lead at the break. The third quarter belonged to Penn State, as the Nittany Lions dropped 28 points and at one point had touchdowns on a ridiculous seven-straight possessions. The fourth quarter? That’s when things got even more absurd.
With a 49-35 lead and all the momentum entering the fourth quarter, the Lions looked to be on their way to a stunning comeback win. That’s when USC redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold got going. The Trojans drove down the field and got into the end zone with 8:15 left to tighten the score to 49-42. Then after the teams traded empty drives, USC and Darnold took over on their own 20 with 1:50 left and no timeouts. In five plays Darnold had USC in the end zone via a 27-yard strike to Deontay Burnett. That drive was incredible and culminated with one of the most ridiculous throws I’ve ever seen in college football. The game was tied at 49 with 1:20 left and it wasn’t close to over.
Penn State got the ball back at its own 35-yard line and 1:05 to go and appeared content to play for overtime. But with two timeouts James Franklin and his YOLO team went for it. Quarterback Trace McSorley threw two awful passes, and the second was intercepted by USC’s Leon McQuay III and returned to the Penn State 33-yard line. After a token run up the middle, USC sent kicker Matt Boermeester out to attempt a 46-yard field goal. Boermeester hit it dead center and sent the Trojan crowd into pandemonium. Darnold and co. were down 14 entering the fourth and managed to hold Penn State scoreless while reeling off 17 points to win an unbelievable game.
3. 1926: Alabama 20, Washington 19
This was Alabama’s first-ever bowl appearance and the Crimson Tide made the most of it, winning the Rose Bowl and securing the program’s first national title in the process.
Trailing 12-0 entering the third quarter, the underdog Tide found back and scored 20 unanswered points, including touchdown passes of 59 and 30 yards. The Huskies fought back in the fourth with a 27-yard touchdown pass to close the gap, but with no two-point conversion rule at the time, all Washington could do was kick the extra point.
The Tide managed to hold on to win 20-19 in one of the biggest upsets in Rose Bowl history.
2. 1963: USC 42, Wisconsin 38
Astoundingly this contest marked the first time the No. 1 and No. 2 teams faced off in a bowl game in college football history. The top-ranked and undefeated Trojans jumped all over the second-ranked Badgers and led 42-14 with 14:54 left the fourth quarter. Then Wisconsin came alive.
The Big Ten champions roared back to score 23 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, but that was as far back as they could come. The game set 11 Rose Bowl records, including Wisconsin quarterback Ron Vander Kelen’s 401 yards passing.
The win earned USC its fifth national title and the first of four the Trojans would claim under legendary head coach John McKay.
1. 2006: Texas 41, USC 38
Universally hailed as one of the greatest college football games of all-time, this is the second “Vince Young Game” on this list. Young accounted for 467 yards and three touchdowns, while his counterpart, Matt Leinart, threw for 365 and a touchdown.
The game featured two Heisman Trophy winners (Leinart and USC running back Reggie Bush), four top-10 picks in the 2006 NFL Draft (and 13 other players who would be drafted that year) and two undefeated teams battling for a national title.
The Trojans led 38-26 with 6:42 remaining in the contest, but Young quickly lead the Longhorns on a touchdown drive to close the gap to 38-33 with 4:03 to go. USC then drove the ball to Texas’ 45-yard line and lined up for a fourth and two with 2:13 left. In one of the most debated decisions in college football history, Pete Carroll opted to run the ball with LenDale White, and Texas got a stop. That gave Young the ball at his own 44-yard line with 2:09 remaining. The rest is history.
The Longhorns marched right down the field and with 30 seconds left and facing a 4th and 5 at the 8-yard line, Young snuck out of the pocket and found the end zone. After a two-point conversion was successful, Texas led 41-38. USC had the ball back on its own 31 with just eight seconds remaining and Leinart completed a 26-yard pass to Bush. But on the game’s final play a Leinart heave to Dwayne Jarrett fell incomplete and Young and his team celebrated in Pasadena.
That was the best Rose Bowl game ever. The stakes, the players involved and the way the game played out elevates it above all others. There is no discussion.