LOS ANGELES – Vince Young’s 2006 Rose Bowl-winning, fourth-and-5 dash to the north end zone came not long before midnight Eastern on Jan. 4 — well past bedtime for a grade-schooler with class the next day, as was the case for current Penn State cornerback Grant Haley.
“Vince Young running into the end zone right there — I was supposed to be asleep,” he said. “But I sneaked off to my mom’s room to watch that game.”
The current generation of Rose Bowl participants were youngsters when USC and Texas met on Jan. 4, 2006. Haley was two days shy of his 10th birthday.
Almost to a man, the top memory both Penn State and USC players recited as their most enduring from the Rose Bowl was of that game. Bedtime be damned.
For anyone who had the pleasure of watching it live — with or without parental permission — two words capture the magic of that night.
“Vince Young,” Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “That guy is just a stud. He dominated college football in general. That’s definitely my Rose Bowl memory.”
Young carved a spot an eternal place in college football history with his performance that night: 30-of-40 for 267 yards passing, 200 yards rushing and three touchdowns. His last score completed a fourth-quarter rally and a 41-38 Longhorn win.
The 2006 Rose Bowl Game provides the template of what a truly great college football contest should be: back-and-forth in the early phases; one team seizes control at a critical juncture, only to concede it in the waning seconds.
The participants in the 103rd edition of the Granddaddy of ‘Em All followed that template. The Trojans and Nittany Lions put on a show earning acclaim as one of the greatest Rose Bowls — if not college football games — ever played.
Close, at least from a perspective of entertainment value. USC and Penn State combined for 101 points, easily surpassing the Rose Bowl Game record. Chris Godwin and Saquon Barkley showed out for the two of the best individual performances in the game’s recent history.
Ditto USC’s Deontay Burnett, whose game-tying touchdown reception fittingly came in the same end zone as Young’s scoring run. And Burnett was on the receiving end of a record-setting performance from quarterback Sam Darnold, whose five touchdown passes and 453 yards rewrote Rose Bowl history.
The 2017 Rose Bowl even welcomed back Keith Jackson, the iconic voice of college football for more than a generation. Jackson said farewell at the conclusion of the ’06 contest.
But the implications of the 2006 Rose Bowl far surpass anything at stake on Monday. The 92nd didn’t just double as the BCS Championship Game — though the national title being at stake doesn’t hurt.
Historic implications beyond the 2005 season hinged on that game. USC won a share of the 2003 national championship, then steamrolled its way to an outright title in the 2004 campaign. A win over Texas would complete college football’s first three-peat since Army dominated the World War II-era game.
ESPN dedicated significant air-time to a bracket pitting the USC dynasty against college football’s all-time best. Consider it a precursor to the abominable “Who’s Now,” which followed 18 months later.
“The build-up for Texas and USC was incredible,” reporter Chris Dufresne wrote in an email. Dufresne covers college football at TMGCollegeSports.com, including Monday’s 103rd Rose Bowl. He chaired the Football Writers Association of America, and worked numerous Granddaddies as college football maven of The Los Angeles Times.
When someone of Dufresne’s stature reminisces about the impact of a game, understand it comes from a place of unparalleled experience.
The build-up to the 92nd was indeed incredible, but the hype surrounding USC wasn’t unwarranted. The roster featured two different Heisman Trophy winners, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. A third Trojan — LenDale White — put up numbers worthy of Heisman consideration coinciding with Bush’s run to the award.
“That’s a team I’ve always remembered to be a dominant team, the best of the best of college football,” Cabinda said of the 2000s USC teams.
Cabinda’s older sister, Linda, was a USC student, and the family resided in nearby Buena Park. Growing up, the Nittany Lion linebacker was a Trojan fan — one of the many hearts Vince Young broke 11 years ago.
“My sister was definitely more heartbroken than I was, but no doubt about it,” Cabinda said.
Young also broke the hearts of media on tight deadlines that night. Presses nationwide were held to make room for the initial write-thrus dispatched from Pasadena.
A USC win provided a ready-made angle: Just the third three-peat in the sport’s history, and the first in six decades.
“Other thing I remember is having to rewrite my USC ‘dynasty’ story during the last 10 minutes as Vince Young was leading Texas back to the win,” Dufresne wrote. “A lot of writers were ticked off on deadline, I can tell you that!”
For every Young left with heartache that night 11 years ago, however, he and his Longhorn teammates commanded respect that will endure throughout the sport’s history.
“That game is hard,” USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “But Texas, you know, they worked their butt off.”
Credit where it’s due, Mack Brown brought Texas into Southern California undefeated and dominating for much of the 2005 season in a fashion very much similar to USC. Young was himself a Heisman finalist, and perhaps prompted some second-guessing with his effort in Pasadena.
That Texas lineup also featured standouts like Michael Huff, Jamaal Charles, Jonathan Scott and Cedric Griffin. For as much comparison to the all-time great teams as USC elicited, the 2005 Texas Longhorns had their own case to go down among the best-of-the-best.
Brown and his staff came with a strategy that did the unthinkable: Slowed USC for an entire half. That provided Texas the necessary buffer to build a first-half lead that proved instrumental.
As much as Gene Chizik’s strategy contributed to Texas’ win, however, another coaching decision is more synonymous with the 2006 Rose Bowl than any other: Pete Carroll’s choice to have Bush on the sidelines for USC’s final play.
“Why wasn’t Reggie Bush in the game on fourth-and-2?” Dufresne wrote. “That play will haunt Pete Carroll almost as much as not giving ball to Lynch at goal line in the Super Bowl.”
Players and coaches are notorious for agonizing over singular decisions in a tough loss. Monday’s unforgettable Rose Bowl Game isn’t without its haunting What If moments. What if Trace McSorley doesn’t throw an interception to Leon McQuay III?
But then, Penn State’s not in position to play for that winning drive without his four touchdown passes and repeated evasion of would-be sacks.
In that same vein, the bulldozing LenDale White rushed for 124 yards against Texas, and functioned as the Trojans’ short-yardage specialist all season.
Such is the unpredictability and chaos that makes college football so much fun. It’s these details that make a game played 11 years ago feel as though it occurred yesterday, whether you’re a seasoned veteran of the sport, or a grade-schooler sneaking out of bed to catch the final plays.