The grass, which you’ll put your bare feet on the second you’re sure you can get away with it, didn’t come from here. It began as seedlings in Oregon in the spring, with months of exhaustive and annually tweaked plans delivering it in the fall as sod to Pasadena from a company 120 miles east. The entire playing surface has never been to the Rose Bowl before, just like every other year.
For a while, even the Rose Bowl itself hadn’t yet been to the Rose Bowl. 1923’s Rose Bowl Game between Penn State and USC was the first to move from a park and into the 40,000-seat Rose Bowl Stadium, a sprawling crater plopped onto a hilly, one-lane neighborhood’s golf course, all observed by the San Gabriel Mountains.
It later added room for 60,000 more people. It recently gained at least one Penn State fan power-drunk on Stella at 8:15 a.m. and a kid on a yellow bicycle somehow blasting Schoolboy Q along a horse trail. But it has yet to add a paved parking lot.
The Trojans came back to beat the Nittany Lions in 1923, technically, though that didn’t compare to when they did the same thing in 2017, down by 14 with nine minutes to go.
In 2017’s game, Penn State took its first lead when Saquon Barkley prowled through USC’s defense for 79 yards, PSU’s longest run in this stadium, other than Ki-Jana Carter’s eruption on the first play in 1995.
Chris Godwin extended the lead with a 72-yard juggling stunt, part of the obscene highlight mixtape he worked on all afternoon.
Quarterback Trace McSorley would soon score after a USC interception, completing a run of four Penn State touchdowns in four Penn State offensive snaps and putting the Nittany Lions up, 42-27.
What happened next in front of an evenly split 95,000 fans amounted to “what may have been the most exciting Rose Bowl game ever,” PSU head coach James Franklin said after the game.
“I think about Sam [Darnold, USC’s QB], I think about Barkley, I think about [USC receiver Deonta] Burnett, both sides, Trace, both sides of the ball were just the greatest players shined brightest on the biggest stage,” USC head coach Clay Helton said. “And both teams had it. Whether it was our quarterback, whether it was their quarterback or several skilled athletes, it was an amazing game. It's what fairy tales are made of.”
Back to the setting for a second.
The Rose is Football Disney World, down to the armies of pleasant professionals who have two jobs: maintaining perfect order and ensuring Wonderful Experiences. If you’re here for work, you’ll eventually break your habit of apologizing for being in the way, once you realize how many people are mobilized to collect trash you didn’t even yet realize you’d produced. Someone apologized to me because I spilled a drop of the provided Sriracha. Of course there is provided Sriracha.
Most of the grass is forbidden to be stepped on until the game has ended. The Experience is being Preserved. Only once 200 players have trampled mudholes into the grass is its work done. You realize the error of your ways and leave the grass be.
The grass is slick in 2017’s game. The mountains are ringed with clouds, the temperature is the Rose’s lowest in 43 years, and rain fell a day earlier, things that are supposed to be impossible. The conditions might’ve contributed to USC star Adoree’ Jackson’s ankle injury early in USC’s comeback.
Eleven plays later, they also cause Darnold’s two-point conversion attempt to look like someone jumping out of a bathtub and trying to stick a flat-footed landing. He sticks it, bringing the Trojans within a score (with so many scores still to go).
Later, Darnold breaks the all-time Rose Bowl record for total yards, with 473. The redshirt freshman goes bomb-for-bomb against the slightly more experienced McSorley, throwing two fewer picks and one more touchdown, all amid a steady pass rush and without the benefit of a running game that could drop a 79-yarder. His five passing TDs are also a new Rose record, with the fifth a 27-yard strike to Burnett to tie the game with 1:20 left.
Darnold, who took over midseason, is the single-biggest reason the Trojans finish the season with a nine-game win streak, the longest by anybody besides Alabama or Oklahoma. Helton went from being the former interim on the hot seat in September to the guy whose name is going here:
The old yardage record was set against USC in 2006 by Texas’ Vince Young in the only other Rose Bowl I’m old enough to have seen that could compare to 2017’s.
Many people consider 2006’s the greatest college football game ever. It had the benefit of national championship stakes, while 2017’s only had two teams whom we might be tempted to sub in for their conference mates in this season’s Playoff, as soon as we invent time travel.
The Rose has always had a complicated relationship with the concept of national titles, a concept that wasn’t formalized until nearly a century after the bowl began.
In 1963, USC built a big lead against Wisconsin and watched it disappear, much more drastically than it did against Penn State in 2017, but held on to win. The game was the first-ever No. 1 vs. No. 2 bowl, or what you’d think would’ve been the first-ever actual national title game, except the polls wouldn’t start factoring bowl games for five more years.
In 1995, Carter’s touchdown run was bittersweet from the first step, since Penn State knew No. 1 Nebraska had already won its bowl and that a month of frustrated politicking by Nittany Lions players and coaches had amounted to nothing. The Rose’s special status with the Big Ten and Pac-12 had meant those two conferences weren’t part of the pre-BCS attempts at creating an annual title game. Carter, like Barkley, ran for nothing beyond the Rose Bowl.
The year before the Rose finally empowered the BCS by agreeing to occasionally break from its Midwest vs. West Coast tradition in the name of national championships, Michigan beat Washington State in a game that feels like it was being officiated by dueling crews.
2013’s Rose was followed days later in Pasadena by the last-ever BCS Championship, and yes, there was a second layer of fresh sod for that second game, piled on top of the first layer. That’s how it’s done. The next Rose was the first-ever Playoff semifinal, when Jameis Winston became a Vine star.
So this year, Penn State’s appearance in the Rose as the first Big Ten champion of the Playoff era to not make the tournament was, just like 1995, somewhere between consolation prize and regional aspiration fulfilled. Reaching the Rose Bowl is instilled in every Midwesterner as the ultimate glory, but when a team you beat gets to lose by 31 points in the Playoff? For the Penn State tailgaters I talk to before kickoff, that last detail is Pasadena’s only imperfection.
“Such Ohio State shit, to have the whole thing rigged for them and then to blow it anyway,” laughs bearded Jeff.
Otherwise, the Rose Bowl is perfect at keeping this thought bouncing around your brain: “Holy crap, I’m at the Rose Bowl.” Even Keith Jackson is in the house.
The legendary (there is no other word) Saturday announcer hadn’t attended, let alone broadcast, any college football game since he called Young’s game-winning touchdown in 2006. The call still stands on the elevator up to the TV booth.
Even better: “Holy crap, I’m at the highest-scoring Rose Bowl ever, and it’s about to go to overtime.”
In 103 of these games, this was both the most explosive and the one that came the closest to overtime. If USC’s Leon McQuay hadn’t gotten a second chance to make the interception of a lifetime and set up dabbing kicker Matt Boermeester’s 46-yard game-winner at the buzzer (or if any part of the field goal chain had failed on the glossy turf), we would’ve had free Rose Bowl. An extended version of any Rose Bowl, but especially this Rose Bowl? It felt greedy to even consider it.
As soon as the kick crossed the bar, the turf’s job was done.