The USC football team shares the same campus that was the home of entertainment titans like George Lucas and John Wayne. So it’s only fitting that in 2016, the Trojans delivered a season that seems to come straight from the writers’ room.
Seriously: this team executed your prototypical hero’s journey, and we all got to bear witness.
“It was just two really, really good football teams playing at the highest level and competing until the absolute very end,” head coach Clay Helton said after the Trojans 52-49 victory over No. 5 Penn State.
But it was so, so much more than that.
Rewind to the beginning of the season – Act I, if you will – when USC was in the Departure stage of their budding narrative. In August, the Trojans were ranked No. 20 and the future for the team was unclear. After getting stomped 52-6 by No. 1 Alabama, only one thing was certain: USC was not yet ready to hang with the big dogs.
After dropping games to a lackluster No. 7 Stanford and No. 24 Utah in back-to-back weeks – while only managing a win over Utah State – many thought USC wasn’t even ready to hang with the puppies.
It was still early in the season though, and a reluctant Trojan squad stood on the precipice of adventure; we thought they weren’t sure what to do next as the season stood in jeopardy.
But then…everything changed.
The torch was passed from Max Browne to Sam Darnold, and with a new leader came the transition from Act I to Act II, the Initiation.
Here, Darnold and the Trojans stepped off the edge and into the unknown. Nothing could be worse than a 1-3 start, right? And off they went to face whatever the remaining three quarters of the season had in store. Having been woken jarringly from dreams of postseason glory, the Trojan faithful begrudgingly offered their support.
And then this unranked USC squad started winning…a lot.
First against Arizona State, which was expected. Then an upset of No. 21 Colorado, a bit of a surprise, given USC hadn’t managed any wins against top-ranked teams yet under Clay Helton.
Queue the montage where the team just rolls through its schedule – including wins against Arizona, California and Oregon – building steam until a major clash against the next powerful opponent: Washington.
And the Trojans, looking and playing with more confidence, upset the No. 4 Huskies and handed them their only loss of the regular season.
With rivalry matchups against underachieving UCLA and Notre Dame squads to close the season, the timing was perfect for USC to slip up and come crashing back to reality.
Instead, they deftly handled both rivals and awaited a postseason fate that seemed impossible back in August: a shot at the Pac-12 Championship, and with a win there, even the College Football Playoffs.
Fate had other things in mind, though, and a Rose Bowl matchup against the Penn State Nittany Lions awaited the men of Troy.
Here, the No. 9 Trojans experienced their final crisis of the season, the climax of Act II that would set the tone for things to come.
And in their penultimate challenge, USC staged a last stand more heart stopping than when Gerry Bertier got in a car accident right before the state championship in Remember the Titans.
After surrendering the lead to a Penn State team known for its second-half comebacks, the Trojans were dead in the water. There wasn’t enough time left to change the outcome – USC would fall to Penn State, but it was a heckuva game and still a good season.
But “good season” wasn’t good enough for these Trojans.
Like in any good film, this is the part where the score crescendos, growing more intense with every second, carrying you and the protagonist swiftly to the climax. Pushing you over, it leaves two outcomes: crushing defeat or total elation.
USC found a way to get within one possession of Penn State, and with 1:20 left, a freshman quarterback had 80 yards to go to tie the game for his team. With the calm, methodical poise of a veteran, he did the improbable. In three plays and 39 seconds, Darnold found Deontay Burnett in the endzone to tie the score at 49.
It was chaos. It was electric. It was everything.
And then it was more.
USC defensive back Leon McQuay III came up with not one, but two incredibly clutch stops. The first time, he made a play on the ball and dropped what could have been a pick and on the very next play, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorely tried him again.
This time, McQuay would snatch the interception out of the air with less than a minute to go, giving the Trojan offense a chance to win it in regulation.
“Those two stops kind of came down to everything that led up to this game,” senior linebacker Michael Hutchings said. “That led up to those two moments going back when you start in the winter, in the spring, in the summer. And guys were playing for pride at that point. The score was close, but we knew we still had a chance, and there was a lot of time left.”
The final seconds dripped with drama. USC kicker Matt Boermeester missed two field goals earlier in the game, and it would be up to him to seal the Trojan victory and crush the opposing fan base, which just moments ago was on the verge of tasting sweet, sweet victory.
As the clock ticked down, Boermeester’s kick was up, and then it was good and then it was so many things – a dramatic win, redemption for a coaching staff that was doubted, and an unlikely conclusion to a season that began with a 52-point shellacking and ending with a 52-point triumph.
Which brings us to Act III of the hero’s journey, the Return.
USC is a transformed team for what it experienced in 2016, and it will carry that energy and awareness into next season. They showed they could come from behind if necessary and make it look easy while they do it. They can – and they just might – beat any team they face on any College Football Saturday.
But of course they can. Of course a team like USC – that basks in Hollywood’s shadow – looked like a complete joke to open the season and ended it as one of the best teams. Of course they penned an unforgettable, sensational story.
It’s what they do. It’s who they are. It’s what makes USC, USC.
They didn’t just play in the Rose Bowl; they gave us the most Shonda Rhimes-worthy season finale, and like any good ending, it’s one that we’ll remember for the ages.