We always knew the Rose Bowl was going to be fine.
College football’s most prestigious game was never going to be a sideshow, even if recently it has seemed like it might turn into one. If there was any worry a year ago, as Iowa got the black and yellow beaten off of them by Stanford, it was offset somewhat by the manner in which it was done. Christian McCaffrey, a Heisman finalist and the AP Player if the Year was electrifying, accounting for 368 all-purpose yards (a new Rose Bowl record) and led the Cardinal to a 35-point first half (also a Rose Bowl record) including a 21-point first quarter (yet another Rose Bowl record) en route to a 45 – 16 victory.
But we knew even before the first non-playoff Rose Bowl of the College Football Playoff era that the Bowl game could deliver even when the National Championship wasn’t at stake; Stanford and Michigan State had showed us that in 2014.
In many ways, that game was similar to this year’s. Well, it wasn’t, but it felt the same. Both played out similarly – two heavyweights slugging it out for four quarters until one stood victorious over the other. But the 2014 Rose Bowl was more like a wrestling match. Two big, brutish programs grappling with each other for an extra inch or two, both looking for small advantages that would help them win. The game only had a total of 44 points combined by both teams (both of the teams that played in this year’s Rose Bowl eclipsed that total on their own), but each score had weight to it. Each time a team punched the ball into the end zone or put it through the upright, it felt like a monumental take down. Even the games final play is a giant tangle of limbs and mass, and determined that Stanford had conceded by failing to gain the 36 more inches they needed to try and keep their final drive toward victory alive.
But whereas the 2014 Rose Bowl was a wrestling match, the 2017 Rose Bowl was a boxing title fight in which both fighters just kept throwing haymakers until enough had landed to break the other. I mean, Penn State did this:
and also this:
and still lost the game, mostly because of USC doing things like this:
Because when it came down to it, it was about one team making just a little bit more out of their opportunities than the other. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley tied the Rose Bowl record for touchdown passes with four. Sam Darnold beat that record with five. Darnold was picked off once in the game. McSorley was picked three times, though the first two happened on Penn State’s first and fifth plays from scrimmage, so the fact that they were driving with a chance to win it with 90 seconds left is a bit of a marvel on its own. And, if McSorley hadn’t thrown his third and final on that drive, then USC’s kicker, who had already missed twice on the night, wouldn’t have gotten the chance to play hero and knock in a 46-yarder as time expired in Pasadena and sent Trojan fans into a frenzy.
It even led James Franklin, who coached the losing side I’ll remind you, to say that this game “may have been the most exciting Rose Bowl ever”. A coach that lost such a game in such a fashion doesn’t need to build up the moment any further, but sometimes the moment builds itself anyway. And no game can build itself better and more beautifully and in so many different ways than the Rose Bowl. But of course, history already told us we didn’t have to worry about that.