For much of regulation, what was hyped as a rematch for the ages between No. 4 USC and Texas didn’t live up to its billing.
But a furious finish in the fourth quarter, capped off by a 27-24 USC win in double overtime, made the wait worth it for the 84,714 fans who filled the Coliseum on Saturday.
“Credit to [head coach Tom] Herman,” head coach Clay Helton said. “I have respect for him and Texas. I’m so glad we caught them early in the season because that team is going to be really, really good.”
With the game tied 24-24 in the second overtime, junior cornerback Ajene Harris recovered a fumble — his second of the game — giving USC the ball. And freshman placekicker Chase McGrath delivered a game-winning 43-yard field goal to give USC the win.
“I kind of think it’s funny because it gives me more time to lock in and stay warm,” McGrath said about being “iced” before his game-winning kick. “It felt really solid coming off my foot. Once I looked up and saw it go through the upright, I was excited.”
In the first overtime, redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold fired a strike to junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett on the very first play to give the Trojans a 24-17 lead. Texas, however, answered when quarterback Sam Ehlinger converted on third down and then on first-and-goal found tight end Cade Brewer to even the score.
For much of the first two quarters of Saturday’s clash with Texas, USC struggled to gain separation. And it nearly cost them, as Texas marched down the field in the final minutes of the fourth quarter to grab the lead with under a minute left.
With USC ahead by four in the final minutes, Ehlinger found wide receiver Collin Johnson on a 47-yard strike that set up the Longhorns inside the USC 30-yard line. Then, on a fourth-and-10 play, Ehlinger connected with Armanti Foreman in the back of the end zone to give Texas the lead with 45 seconds to play.
But the Trojans answered. Darnold marched USC down the field in rapid fashion, finding Burnett, freshman running back Stephen Carr and redshirt senior wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. and setting up a 31-yard field goal by McGrath to force overtime.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget in my life, the best two-minute drive I’ve ever been associated with,” Helton said. “Having to go that far in that little of time, you hope for perfect execution and that’s what you got.”
While both offenses had a difficult time scoring points over the first two quarters, during the last three minutes of the first half, the game opened up in dynamic fashion. With the Trojans deep in Texas territory facing third-and-two, Darnold scrambled outside the pocket to his right and launched a 15-yard pass to junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett, who made a leaping grab in the back edge of the end zone. USC had drawn first blood, scoring the game’s first points on the touchdown.
Texas quickly responded with a highlight reel catch of its own, as Johnson made a 28-yard catch with junior cornerback Iman Marshall draped all over him. But three straight sacks (two for junior linebacker Porter Gustin, one for redshirt sophomore linebacker Christian Rector), placed all the momentum in USC’s favor as the Coliseum crowd came unglued. Gustin entered Saturday as a game-time decision, as he underwent surgery for a broken toe on Wednesday. He had four tackles and two sacks in the first half alone, although he did not play in the second half due to a bicep injury.
The momentum shift would not last long, however. With less than a minute to go in the first half, Darnold fired a pass to redshirt junior wide receiver Jalen Greene, who dropped it. As the ball bounced off his hands, Texas cornerback DeShon Elliot stood in perfect position, intercepting it and taking it to the house for a 38-yard pick-six. It seemed like the game would remain tied at 7-7 apiece entering the second half, but this was no conventional game. With five seconds left at their own 38-yard line, Darnold threw short of the end zone to Jones at around the 20. Facing an army of defenders, Jones broke a pair of tackles, then changed direction, racing into the corner of the end zone and completing a 56-yard touchdown catch aided by a key block from Mitchell. USC led 14-7 heading into halftime.
“It was supposed be a Hail Mary,” Mitchell said. “Sam just dumped it down. Once I saw the defender, I knew if I got that block then Ronald would score.”
Texas would respond with a field goal on the first drive of the second half and the game stayed deadlocked at 14-10 for the rest of the third quarter. Early in the fourth quarter, Darnold made a critical mistake on third down, overthrowing a pass to junior tight end Tyler Petite that floated into Elliot’s hands. USC’s hopes looked bleak as Texas now held possession deep in USC territory, but the Trojan defense once again bailed the team out, as junior safety Marvell Tell jumped a route on third down diving for a key interception, his second of the season.
“Anything the offense does we feed off of,” senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu said. “We knew we couldn’t let them down. We practiced hard all week. We just had to play for each other.”
After the Texas turnover, Darnold threw a strike over the middle to Burnett, who escaped defenders for a big 22-yard gain. Burnett finished with 123 yards and two touchdowns, his fourth straight 100-yard game dating back to the Rose Bowl.
For the Longhorns, Ehlinger got the nod at quarterback over incumbent Shane Buechele. He began his second career start with a bang, launching a 50-yard pass on his first attempt. Although he had his struggles, turning the ball over on two straight possessions in the first quarter (on a Jack Jones interception and Rector fumble recovery), the true freshman shined late in the game.