' ' Cinema Romantico: My Favorite College Football Games: Game 10

Saturday, November 02, 2019

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 10

January 2, 2017 (Rose Bowl): USC - 52 Penn State - 49

Nothing epitomizes college football’s enduring paradoxical nature quite like bowl games, those antiquated, awesome holiday exhibitions situated in warm weather locales that, in the best of times, had charming monikers like Aloha and Bluebonnet. If they are partly about football, they are also some mixture of ostensible civic pride and tourism; mostly, though, they are about getting paid. Not the players, no, of course not, are you kidding, though at least they get bags of swag and a chance to eat their weight in beef. College football, after all, is the only American sport that outsources its postseason, and outsources its postseason to one-off events overseen by boards of directors typically comprised of cheap suits masquerading as community leaders whose foremost obligations are not necessarily to construct the best match-up between random teams but the match-up between teams most likely to put people in the seats and line people’s pockets – namely, theirs. That might make even the hallowed Rose Bowl sound like a gridiron front, and that’s sort of true, a game in which the point is anything but the game itself. Ah, but that is another paradox, and just about my favorite one in this stupid, splendid sport. If so nakedly tying themselves to business interests render these games as anything but, their simultaneous uncoupling from the NCAA, nullifying stakes, means that meaningless games is all they are.

The 2017 Rose Bowl felt a little meaningless. The structure of the four-team playoff inaugurated in 2014 calls for a three-year rotation between six of the biggest bowls to host each season’s semi-final games. In 2017, the Rose was on the outside looking in. And though it still featured the game’s traditional match-up between the Big 10 and Pac-12 conferences, Penn State, the former’s champion, felt unfairly excluded from the playoff, giving them a whiff of “disappointed to be here”, while USC was merely Pac-12 runner-up, the actual conference winner going to the four-team winner-take-all bracket instead. And if any Midwestern kid who grew up watching an NBC-broadcast Rose Bowl with Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen wearing corsages can attest, because of its primo mid-afternoon New Year’s Day time slot, the Rose begins in the bright California sunshine and ends in the glittery twilight, illuminating the players like movie stars under search lights on a red carpet of Bermuda grass. The 2017 Rose Bowl, on the other hand, began under overcast skies, a pall underlining the matchup. Bah humbug. And then.

The game exploded. I mean, this game went berserk. It was as if, 115 years later, we finally got a Tournament East–West football game where Stanford matched Michigan’s Point-a-Minute ethos. Penn State didn’t win, but they made the game, falling behind 20-7 at the end of the first quarter prior to detonating for eight touchdowns on eight straight possessions. A few scores skewed more prosaic, sure, but just as often they were staggering feats of football lunacy. Saquon Barkley’s 79-yard zigzagging TD run was a Disneyland ride come to life that all on its own atoned for Roy Riegels while Trace McSorley throwing the ball deep into one-on-one coverage to let his receiver, Chris Godwin, thrillingly turn it into 72 yards worth of six points was the Nittany Lion quarterback living out his swashbuckling brand. McSorley’s USC counterpart Sam Darnold, who will always be the 2017 Rose Bowl MVP to me regardless of what he does in the pros, then answered the bell by bringing his team back from its own two-score deficit, setting the bowl’s record for touchdown passes along the way, to tie the game with 39 seconds left on a pass that was a melt-your-face marvel of precision. Had the game gone to overtime, who knows, they might’ve traded touchdowns ‘til the left coast spring. Instead McSorley, bless his soul, eschewed conservatism and went deep one more time. That it was intercepted, leading directly to USC’s winning field goal, was both beside the point and the whole point in beautiful, reckless capsule.

If you wonder why he threw that pass, well, why wouldn’t he? What did the game mean? But that’s the thing, isn’t it? A meaningless game means nothing beyond whatever significance we ascribe it. And by the time McSorley heaved the ball one last time into the New Year’s gloaming, the 2017 Rose Bowl, I swear, felt like it meant everything.

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