It is almost considered college football heresy to say any game could rival the 2006 National Championship as the best game ever played. The undefeated, No. 2 Texas Longhorns beat the undefeated, No. 1 USC Trojans, 41-38, with Vince Young scoring a touchdown on fourth-and-five with 19 seconds left, capping off a 467-total-yard performance.
But now, thanks to another Rose Bowl, that game has a rival. USC beat Penn State in the highest-scoring Rose Bowl in history on Tuesday, winning 52-49 on a last-second field goal to cap a 14-point fourth quarter comeback.
Yeah but this wasn't a national title game, you might say. It wasn't No. 1 vs. No. 2. There wasn't quite as much talent on the field as there was 11 years ago. Sure, I'll grant you all of that—but this game had everything you can ask for in a college football game. On one hand, Penn State scored three touchdowns on three plays to start the second half and still lost. On the other hand, the Nittany Lions threw interceptions on their first two possessions and came back to take a two-score lead in the fourth quarter. Each team answered their opponent at every turn, and they did it with highlight plays.
There were a whopping 16 plays of 20 yards or more. USC quarterback Sam Darnold finished with 453 yards and five touchdowns. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley finished with 194 rushing yards, including runs like this:
Penn State wide receiver Chris Godwin finished with 187 yards, including this catch:
And this catch, too:
In an era with such annoyingly conservative coaching, both teams threw caution to the wind. Penn State's second half offense was essentially "fuck it, I'm going deep," and that didn't stop when USC tied the game at 49 with just over a minute left. It ended in an interception, but it's what got the Nittany Lions to this point in the first place.
This might not have been the most important game ever played, but it might have been the most exhilarating. The explosiveness and the competitiveness that have been missing from so much of the bowl season, including the two College Football Playoff games, all showed up in the Rose Bowl. There's a chance we will never see big play after big play, at that high of a level, ever again.
USC-Texas might still be safe as the greatest game ever based on importance alone, but in terms of sheer excitement, that iconic game just might have a rival.