Before my first Stanford game, a senior gave me a warning.
“I know you’re getting excited about the team, but they’re probably going to let you down.”
She was right, of course, and I nursed the sting of that fourth-quarter loss for days. The unfurling mess of Sarkisian’s dismissal and the brutal Pac-12 championship loss led me to a natural conclusion — USC football just wasn’t what it used to be anymore.
I carried that attitude into this year. There were weeks when I wanted to roll my eyes at head coach Clay Helton during interviews. He told the reporters that his team just needed to find themselves.
They’re good players, he said. He believed in them, even if no one else did. I thought it was a load of bull, that typical cliched script that every coach with a losing record is forced to recite.
I don’t have to remind any USC fan of what came next. Week after week, with every scramble play and interception and leaping dash to the end zone, the Trojans proved me wrong. I went from blowing off our season to arguing with friends from other schools that USC had a shot at making the playoffs.
When we received our invitation to the Rose Bowl, I didn’t doubt that we would win. And after writing the team off at the start of the season, I was never happier to get it totally, entirely wrong.
But Monday night as the third quarter ended, I was back to being a non-believer.
It was just too much. The outnumbered Penn State fans roaring as if they owned the Rose Bowl. Adoree’ Jackson injured and crying on the bench. Cam Smith watching from the locker room after an ejection. The NCAA workers rolling the trophy to the Penn State side of the field, opening a box of champions t-shirts and hats.
We were going to lose. I thought it, I knew it, I said it. And I wasn’t the only one who believed it.
But Monday night proved me wrong yet again. Quarterback Sam Darnold turned a handful of plays into an honest-to-God miracle of a comeback. The defense picked off a pass, our kicker slammed the ball through the uprights and I tried not to cry as we won one of the greatest honors in college football.
That team proved me wrong, and they proved their head coach wrong in the process. These Trojans aren’t good. They are great.
They work hard, they don’t make excuses, they don’t hang their heads. They don’t stop fighting, even when their record reads 1-3, even when all the momentum swings against them. And they’re not believers in star players, in the necessity of a handful of guys to make or break any game.
So it’s fitting, of course, that it wasn’t Adoree’ Jackson or JuJu Smith Schuster who lit the offense on fire or made the defensive stops to win the game.
Instead it was sophomore Deontay Burnett, who worked all season in the shadows just outside Smith Schuster’s spotlight, roping in three touchdown passes to bring the Trojans thundering back. It was Leon McQuay, a senior battling for a starting position, snagging the game-winning interception.
The MVP’s of the game were Darnold and nose guard Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, a 19-year-old who started out as a back-up quarterback and a 25-year-old graduate transfer nose guard who spent part of the season living out of his car.
This wasn’t the coronation of a highly-esteemed powerhouse, and it wasn’t the highlight game of the season for Heisman candidates or first round draft picks. It was a game for underdogs, for comeback kids, for two down-and-out teams who picked themselves up and kept grinding until the victory laps came.
The story of this game wrote itself, unfolding like a perfectly scripted ESPN 30-for-30. It was impossible to believe if you weren’t watching it with your own eyes.
Everyone will tell you this was a storybook finish. They’re wrong. That’s not what this was at all.
This was a fairy tale beginning, a first act that begs to be followed again and again. As athletic director Lynn Swann said shortly after the final whistle, we’re not there yet. If we were, we’d be playing on January 9th for the national championship. And this team isn’t one to be satisfied for long.
So yes, this game was one that will go down in the history books. And yes, it was the last for players who will be remembered just as highly — Zach Banner and Darreus Rogers and Justin Davis, and most likely Jackson and Smith Schuster as well.
But the story of this team, of Clay Helton’s team? It’s only getting started.
Welcome to the new year. USC football is back. Can you believe it?