And then there were two. The USC Trojans have won more Rose Bowls than any program in history, and more than a few have been phenomenal football games. WeAreSC readers narrowed down the games to a final two in the race for the best USC Rose Bowl game of all time.
The Rose Bowl semifinal matchups featured two blowout victories, as the 1975 edition easily defeated the 1939 USC win against Duke, and the 2017 thriller rolled over the 1963 edition against Wisconsin.
1975 Rose Bowl
The 1975 game featured a late USC score to give the Trojans a win.
USC’s 1974 season started with a dud, in a 22-7 loss to Arkansas. But the Trojans went 8-0-1 over their next nine games to secure a spot in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State held the No. 1 ranking for much of the year, until a November loss to Michigan State dropped them to No. 4. By the time this game was set, it was No. 3 Ohio State against No. 5 USC, with Ohio State favored by six points. It was also the third-straight season the Trojans and Buckeyes would meet.
Like many of these “best ever” games, it was a slow start for the Trojans, who trailed 7-3 at halftime. USC also saw tailback Anthony Davis knocked out of the game with a rib injury.
USC took a 10-7 lead in the fourth quarter, as quarterback Pat Haden hit tight end Jim Obradovich for a touchdown. Ohio State scored on two possessions in a row to go up 17-10, and USC had the ball on the Ohio State 40-yard line, facing a fourth-and-one. Tailback Alan Carter picked up the first down, and Haden subsequently found wide receiver J.K. McKay on a corner route for a 38-yard touchdown with 2:03 remaining.
Head coach John McKay and offensive coordinator John Robinson decided to go for two, and to roll Haden out of the pocket. Haden ultimately found wide receiver Shelton Diggs in the endzone, whose diving grab gave USC an 18-17 lead.
The Trojans ultimately had to hang on and watch a Buckeye 62-yard field goal attempt land short, giving USC its second Rose Bowl win in three years.
2017 Rose Bowl
Different from the 1975 version, this Rose Bowl was an absolute shootout. And again, it was a late score from USC the provided the difference.
USC had bounced back from a 1-3 start to the season to grab a Rose Bowl berth, while Penn State registered as one of the hottest teams in the nation as well, winning 9-straight after starting the season 2-2.
USC recorded interceptions on Penn State’s first two possessions and then forced two punts, but could only take a 13-0 lead. From that point, the teams traded touchdowns on five-consecutive drives and when USC’s offense started to sputter, Penn State’s did not. The Nittany Lions scored touchdowns on four-consecutive plays, and on seven-consecutive drives to take a 49-35 lead with 1:55 left in the third quarter.
A Ronald Jones short touchdown run with 8:15 left cut the Penn State lead to seven, and a massive USC defensive stand with roughly two minutes to play forced Penn State to punt.
USC quarterback Sam Darnold took over at his own 20-yard line with 1:50 left and threw the ball five times. The first two went for first downs, the next two resulted in defensive pass interference penalties, and the fifth was an absolute dart to wide receiver Deontay Burnett for a 27-yard touchdown to tie the game with 1:20 left to play. And somehow itwas still far from over.
Penn State went for the win, and USC safety Leon McQuay III had two opportunities for interceptions. He grabbed the second and returned it 32 yards to help set up a USC field goal attempt, which USC kicker Matt Boermeester nailed from 46 yards as time expired to give USC the 52-49 win.
The 101 total points set a Rose Bowl record at the time, Darnold set Rose Bowl records with five passing touchdowns and 473 yards of total offense, and the Trojans’ 14-point 4th-quarter comeback is also a Rose Bowl record.
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