It’s now over a week since it happened. The college football season also officially ended Monday, after Clemson completed a comeback that rivals even ’SC’s. We’ve even had a couple of Trojans declare for the NFL draft already, adding a bittersweet touch to an otherwise perfectly rosy season.
It’s now perfectly acceptable for Trojan fans to start looking ahead to the 2017 season. As sports editor Julia Poe pointed out last week, there are an endless number of reasons to already be excited about what the program has next in store.
Personally, though, I’m still soaking in the Trojans’ epic Rose Bowl victory. Maybe it’s my overly nostalgic inner senior showing again, and I’ll officially transition into full-on 2017 hype soon enough. But for the time being, I’ll still be reminiscing on the most recent win more than I’ll be thinking about the next game.
I don’t need to rehash any specific moments from the game one more time — I’m sure you watched it, too. But the significance of USC’s performance against Penn State is something that I still think is worth talking about because it truly was remarkable within the context of USC’s recent program history.
For those of us Trojan fans who were spoiled and grew up right at the ascent of the USC Golden Age — basically, anyone who is a current senior and got a Rose Bowl win as the cherry on top of our undergraduate football experience — we got to see a lot of USC victories in major bowl games. Six, to be exact.
In fact, my first real memory of watching a USC football game while being old enough to appreciate and be invested in the implications of the result was the 2003 Orange Bowl, when the Carson Palmer-led Trojans resoundingly beat an overmatched Big Ten opponent in Iowa. Throw in another Orange Bowl victory, plus an absurd four Rose Bowl wins — all in a seven-year span — and that’s more BCS bowl victories than I can count on one hand.
Every single one was by double digits. Every. Single. One. In fact, each one of those six bowl wins was by at least two touchdowns. Iowa in the ’03 Orange Bowl was 38-17; Michigan in the ’04 Rose Bowl was 28-14; Oklahoma in the ’05 Orange Bowl was a glorious 55-19; Michigan Rose Bowl Round No. 2 in ’07 was 32-18; Illinois was just happy to be there in a 49-17 ’08 Rose Bowl mismatch, and the ’09 Rose Bowl was another sound 32-18 win for the Trojans over Penn State. Of course, the one bowl loss in that span is arguably the most famous out of any of the games — yep, still hurts — but a mere single exception in that span doesn’t take away from how remarkable that run was.
So going into the Rose Bowl, there was a tiny bit of a feeling that maybe, finally, USC was due for a regression in its unheard-of recent bowl success. But that was quickly overtaken by the old Arrogant Nation sky-high confidence.
USC had gotten its vintage swagger back. By the end of the season, the Trojans could walk into any stadium in the country with the unequivocal belief that they would win — because they were USC, and they probably would. Throw in some pre-season rankings bias on my part, resulting in some skepticism that Penn State really was on Michigan or Ohio State’s level and capable of running with the Trojans, and my confidence was through the roof. Not that USC would find a way to win against Penn State, but that USC was just definitively better than Penn State, like it was against anyone else. The outcome would never be in doubt. Why would it be?
The term “Fight On” has been a brand of the school, and especially the football program, for as long as I can remember. But in my generation, it was not an actual call to battle. It was just a trademark, the signature USC salute, like a “Hook ’Em” at Texas or a “War Eagle” at Auburn. It never meant what the literal message conveys. It never meant anything. We just said it. We all did, all the time.
But USC football during the peak of the Pete Carroll’s dynasty never symbolized the comeback spirit. The Trojans weren’t the epitome of the “never give up” mentality. USC football was just better than everyone. The offense was faster, the defense was stronger, the coach was cooler, the band was louder and the team was just better. I can’t remember a single time during that seven-season stretch when the Trojans didn’t go into a game favored. They didn’t need to come back. They just won.
That’s what makes this Rose Bowl victory so special. It wasn’t just a Hollywood ending, the conclusion to a storybook season. It’s a coming of age journey for a program and its fan base. If anything, USC football’s reputation during its post-sanction rebuilding phase was the opposite of fighting on, noted for as many blown leads in Utah and surrendered Hail Marys as upsets over Stanford. When head coach Clay Helton talked about how his players “fought on” all of the Rose Bowl and all season, this was really the first time that term was actually warranted to describe this program.
Now I know that the ultimate success of a program in American sports depends on championships. If you ain’t first, you’re last. That will always be the expectation with a program like USC, as it should. But there is still plenty of pride to take in winning a game known as the “Granddaddy of Them All.” Before we start mentally chasing after the next one, let’s soak in this one.
So until at least Signing Day, I don’t want to talk about how high USC will project in the preseason AP Poll, how easily redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold will run away with the Heisman or how much we want junior Adoree’ Jackson to stay for one more year. OK, fine, I’ll admit it, I’ll probably cheat on that one and check Twitter incessantly until he announces, but I would be just fine with him ending his Trojan career on a Rose Bowl win.
When I walked into the bookstore on Monday to get my supplies for the semester, they were still looping highlights of sophomore kicker Matt Boermeester’s game-winning field goal to the audio of Pete Arbogast’s radio call. And there I was, standing in line, buying two legal pads, and getting the chills.
Luke Holthouse is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs on Wednesdays.