It’s been a while since boxing had itself a titanic heavyweight battle, but we’ll continue to use college football as a proxy in the meantime. Two years ago, I graded the amazing TCU-Baylor game as a 12-round fight. As a nod to how ridiculous Monday night’s Rose Bowl truly was, I’m going to give it the same treatment here.
This, from 2014 TCU-Baylor, still applies:
Both teams made strong defensive plays, and neither team missed a significant number of tackles. But there were so many plays, so many long balls, so many defensive risks, so many potential knockout blows.
Sometimes technically sound, slower fights can be gorgeous and appealing, and sometimes you just want guys throwing haymakers for 12 rounds
On to the scorecards.
As is typically the case for Penn State, the Nittany Lions start slow. But this is impressive even by their standards. Trace McSorley is picked off on PSU's first and fifth plays from scrimmage, and the Nittany Lions trail by only a 7-0 margin because of a missed field goal. Still, a 26-yard strike from Sam Darnold to Deonta Burnett gives the Trojans the early edge.
Scorecard: 10-9 USC
Improvement! PSU doesn't turn the ball over on its third possession but still goes three-and-out. Meanwhile, with help from a pass interference penalty, USC drives 53 yards in nearly five minutes, and a 22-yard field goal expands the advantage to 10-0.
Scorecard: 10-9 USC
Rinse, repeat. Another three-and-out for PSU, another field goal for USC. It's an easy victory in each of the first three rounds, but there hasn't been a knockdown yet. That will change soon enough.
Scorecard: 10-9 USC
Penn State finds its pulse. McSorley completes a series of passes, and on third-and-6 from the USC 24, Saquon Barkley scores his first touchdown of the day. USC immediately responds, though, with a 32-yarder from Darnold to Burnett, and a 24-yard run by Justin Davis. A three-yarder to Burnett makes it 20-7 USC. The fourth round is a back-and-forth draw.
Again, back and forth we go. Penn State immediately strikes back with an acrobatic 30-yard touchdown catch by Chris Godwin, and USC needs only six plays to respond. Passes of 36 yards to JuJu Smith-Schuster and 24 to Adoree' Jackson set up a short touchdown by Darreus Rogers. It's 27-14 with 6:16 left in the half.
Penn State slows things down in the sixth round. The Nittany Lions eat more than four minutes off of the clock advancing inside USC's 30, and though McSorley is sacked on third-and-5 from the 24, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu is penalized for grabbing McSorley's face mask. Given new life, Penn State takes advantage: Mike Gesicki makes his own acrobatic catch in the same corner of the end zone in which Godwin found paydirt. Penn State has won only one round so far, but USC's halftime lead is only 27-21.
Scorecard: 10-9 PSU
In Round 7, the ref very nearly steps in. In the first 4:34 of the third quarter, Penn State scores on a 79-yard run by Barkley, a 72-yard catch and run by Godwin, and, following a Brandon Bell interception, a three-yard score by McSorley. Down 27-14 in the final minute of the second quarter, PSU suddenly leads by 15. USC staggers to its corner, still upright, if barely.
Scorecard: 10-7 PSU
Perhaps the most impressive response of the night comes next. On the verge of getting their doors blown off, the Trojans respond with a 10-play, 65-yard touchdown drive. Darnold finds Aca'Cedric Ware for 20 yards on third-and-10, then hits Smith-Schuster for a 13-yard score. USC is back in the fight.
Scorecard: 10-9 USC
Penn State is still in control, though. Aided by a pair of personal foul penalties — one egregiously awful, one textbook — the Nittany Lions drive 82 yards, and Barkley scores on a seven-yard pass from McSorley. The third quarter ends with Darnold getting sacked on third-and-4. USC will punt to start the fourth quarter/10th round.
Scorecard: PSU 10-9
USC finally gets a stop. McSorley is sacked on second-and-11 and fumbles. But PSU lucks out when replay shows that lineman Connor McGovern recovered the ball; in real time, the officials gave the ball to USC. Now time is on PSU's side, and following a great punt by Blake Gillikin — his five punts averaged 51 yards on the day — USC is tasked with starting at its own 17 with a two-score deficit.
Scorecard: 10-9 PSU
USC indeed drives the length of the field, though it takes nearly five minutes. Smith-Schuster makes a wonderful fingertips-and-toetips catch at the PSU 3, and Jones scores on the next play. Penn State then goes three-and-out, but USC responds with a four-and-out. With 3:56 left, PSU has the ball at its 25, looking to eat some clock.
Scorecard: 10-9 USC
Mission accomplished...at first. Barkley rushes for 10 yards on second-and-9, which means USC will have to use its three timeouts. Michael Hutchings stuffs Barkley for a huge loss on third-and-4, however, so the Trojans will get the ball back with 1:59 left and no timeouts.
In real time, it feels like USC scores too quickly. Following two passes for 23 yards, PSU is called for back-to-back pass interference penalties. That sets up another Burnett touchdown, this one from 27 yards out. Eighty seconds remain, and the game is tied.
On its ensuing possession, Penn State second-guesses itself. On first down, the Nittany Lions appear satisfied with going to overtime; Barkley rushes for one yard, and PSU lets the game clock work down to 46 seconds before snapping the ball again. On second down, however, McSorley finds Gesicki open deep, but pressure keeps him from getting the ball there in time. Leon McQuay nearly picks it up.
On third down, PSU rolls the dice. McSorley goes deep again, and McQuay not only picks the ball off, he also stays in bounds near the sideline and returns the ball 32 yards to the PSU 33.
That gives Matt Boermeester a chance to atone for his first-quarter miss. With no time left, Boermeester nails a 46-yard field goal to give USC the win. With four minutes left, it appeared the worst-case scenario for PSU was overtime. USC instead won it in regulation. Call it a 12th-round knockout.
This was a wonderful game. The teams combined for 1,040 yards and over 100 points, but huge defensive stops did as much to define the game as offensive fireworks. And there were significant plot twists and acrobatic touchdowns in every quarter. We’ll remember this one for a while, and honestly, both teams will probably end up getting bowl bumps in the ensuing preseason polls.
The Rose Bowl sucked up most of the day’s oxygen. Here’s a look at the rest of college football’s final multiple-bowl day of the season.
A 100.6 passer rating for Auburn’s three QBs
You know the old saying: If you have three quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. Isn't that how it goes?
Regardless, the Sugar Bowl was more or less decided behind center. Oklahoma had Baker Mayfield, a 2016 Heisman finalist and major 2017 Heisman contender. The Sooners entered the game ranked first in Passing S&P+ and lived up to the reputation; Mayfield completed 19 of 28 passes for 296 yards, two touchdowns, and a 180.2 passer rating against a decent Auburn pass defense. He officially broke Russell Wilson’s all-time passing record after the game, too.
Auburn, meanwhile, once again employed a rotating cast of characters at quarterback. Sean White threw 10 passes and rushed three times, then got hurt the fourth time in just over a year. Jeremy Johnson threw nine passes and rushed once. John Franklin threw seven passes and rushed five times.
Combined, Tiger QBs went just 12-for-26 for 153 yards, a touchdown, an interception, and a 100.6 passer rating. Auburn threw two fewer passes than OU and gained 143 fewer passing yards. And after a lovely start — Auburn drove 75 yards for a score on its first possession, and OU went five-and-out — the Tigers quickly ran out of options. They averaged just 3.6 yards per play over their next eight possessions and found themselves down 35-13 until a last-second, garbage-time touchdown.
It was a disappointing finish for an Auburn team that at one point won six straight games in 2016. But while that run indeed raised the bar a bit too high, going 8-5 with a top-20 S&P+ ranking despite a black hole at QB is pretty impressive. And Gus Malzahn heads into 2017 with a pretty obvious issue to address. White was solid when healthy; he also can’t stay healthy. And when he wasn’t an option, Plan B was insufficient.
7 yards per play for Wisconsin
The Rose Bowl featured 150 snaps, 31 possessions, and a run time of 4:12. The Cotton Bowl, on the other hand? 111 plays, 15 possessions, and a total elapsed time of 3:04. There are a lot of approaches for winning a football game.
Because of an absurdly plodding tempo, Wisconsin 'only' gained 362 yards and scored 24 points on Western Michigan. Played at a Rose Bowl pace of 75 snaps and closer to 15-16 possessions, those numbers would have been something like 525 and 50, respectively.
While Western Michigan did an admirable job of containing the Badgers' Corey Clement, who rushed for 23 yards on his first carry and only 48 on his next 21, everything else worked for Wisconsin. Ace tight end Troy Fumagalli caught six passes for 83 yards. Clement and Dare Ogunbowale caught four passes for 56 yards out of the backfield. Receivers Jazz Peavy and Quintez Cephus rushed five times for 84 yards. Bart Houston completed 11 of 12 passes.
While WMU did its best to stick around after a rough start, the Broncos were in too big a hole early on, and with the game on the line late, couldn't get the ball back. The Broncos scored to make it 24-16 with 3:27 remaining, but Wisconsin recovered an onside kick and ate up the final 207 seconds. They could have scored again if they had chosen to.
Wisconsin came into the game ranked only 57th in Off. S&P+ and fifth in Def. S&P+. The Badgers’ defense was solid, holding WMU to 4.7 yards per play and forcing the Broncos to dink and dunk to find success, but the offense wasn’t going to let Wisconsin lose. And because of that, the Badgers scored their first major bowl win since the 2000 Rose Bowl.
The final 19 passes of Austin Appleby's career produced a 185.9 passer rating
Stick a former Purdue quarterback in a bowl, and he starts to look like Drew Brees. LSU's Danny Etling completed some big early passes in the Tigers' bowl win over Louisville on Dec. 31, and Florida's Austin Appleby, also a former Boilermaker, wrapped up his career in style in the Outback Bowl in Tampa. At least, he did after a false start.
Six passes into the game, Appleby was on pace for his worst performance ever. He went 2-for-6 for 23 yards and two interceptions, the latter of which set up an Iowa field goal. But he settled down and thrived; the final 22 pass attempts of his career did feature three sacks, but they also featured 12 completions, 199 yards, and two touchdowns.
While credit for one of the touchdowns went all to the receiver — running back Mark Thompson broke approximately six tackles in his 85-yard catch-and-rumble late in the second quarter — Appleby was also 5-for-6 for 62 yards in the 80-yard, third-quarter touchdown drive that all but sealed the game. His touchdown pass to DeAndre Goolsby with 48 seconds left in the third quarter put the Gators up 17-3, and an ensuing pick six by Chauncey Gardner sent Florida on its way to a 30-3 romp.
5 straight bowl losses for Iowa
Because the Big Ten is king of bowl ties, Iowa's last four bowls have all been on either Jan. 1 or 2: two Outback Bowls, a TaxSlayer, and a Rose. And back on Jan. 1, 2014, Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes nearly took down a 10-win LSU team.
The last three years haven't been as kind to Iowa. In Jan. 2015, Tennessee went up 42-7 on its way to a 45-28 win. A year later, Stanford went up 38-0 early in the third quarter of the Rose Bowl on the way to an easy 45-16 win. And on Monday, though Florida took a while longer to get there, the Gators handed Iowa another big loss.
Bowls are icing on the regular season's cake. Bowl performances are not the most important part of a coach's tenure. But Iowa fans haven't headed into an offseason happy since a 27-24 Insight Bowl win over Missouri in 2010. Quarterbacks in that game: Blaine Gabbert and Ricky Stanzi. Yeah, that was a while ago.