Illuminating the pride, passion and fun of college football is the theme for The Open Man’s 2017 college football coverage.
It seems especially important at this time in our culture to embrace those things that bring us joy. When I received my first gig covering college football, I promised myself I would never be jaded to the point of not appreciating just how remarkable it is to get a paycheck for telling stories about a game.
Reporting on college football has provided me countless memories. The following are my eight favorite.
8. 2007 Poinsettia Bowl: Utah vs. Navy
I was pretty fresh from college when I had the opportunity to cover my first bowl game. Such a milestone eluded me while on staff at my university newspaper, given…well, my alma mater’s teams were terrible.
The game itself was fantastic, coming down to an onside kick at the end. It served as a fitting prelude to Utah’s breakout as a national championship contender the next season, and has particular historic significance, marking the head-coaching debut of Ken Niumatalolo.
The only reason — well, reasons plural — I don’t rate this one more favorably come down to personal issues. Horrific traffic on the 805 turned a typical 30-minute drive into a 90-minute slog, so I was in the press box literally seconds before kickoff.
Qualcomm Stadium has no windows, so the driving rain soaked me, resulting in a bad bout of cold in the weeks to come. I also left my laptop charger at home, making it a photo finish to file my story before juice ran out.
As you may have deduced, I was a hot mess in my early 20s.
7. USC vs. Arizona State, 2014
Few things induce panic quite like realizing you’ll have to completely rewrite story while on a tight deadline. So, when Mike Bercovici’s Hail Mary heave to Jaelen Strong stunned USC in October 2014, my initial reaction wasn’t one of shock or excitement over the remarkable play I witnessed from the Arizona State sideline.
Rather, the dread of having to put together a new story from scratch overtook me. I don’t remember much about bouncing around the Coliseum bowels in search of quotes, and I’m pretty sure I went into a catatonic state as I wrote my postgame feature.
But now that deadline is long since past, I can look back on that single play from an otherwise mid-level game as the single most impressive I ever saw live.
6. 2014 Holiday Bowl: USC vs. Nebraska
Arizona State’s aforementioned Hail Mary win prepared USC for the finish it saw three months later in the Holiday Bowl.
Long the gem of the pre-New Year’s bowl slate, the 2014 edition lived up to its lofty history. The Q was buzzing, packed with fans from two of college football’s most storied programs, and the teams delivered with a fast-paced and exciting contest.
Nebraska whittled away at a USC lead in the fourth quarter, setting up a Hail Mary attempt to win it. The lessons from October proved significant.
This one was also noteworthy for the stellar play of Adoree’ Jackson. Until his showing against Notre Dame in November 2016, this stands out as the best game of his illustrious career.
5. Arizona vs. UCLA, 2005
The majority of games I reference here came down to the wire, or featured historic individual play. Neither really describes Arizona’s 42-14 blowout of UCLA in November 2005, but it ranks here for the sentimentality and surreality.
To the latter point, UCLA came in undefeated and ranked in the Top 5. Pundits were already buzzing about the possibility of the Bruins meeting defending national champion USC in a rivalry game with a BCS Championship Game berth at stake.
Instead, the 2-win Wildcats blitzed UCLA from the outset, building up a five-touchdown lead that could have been much worse, had Mike Stoops opted to run up the score more.
It was my last Homecoming as an undergraduate, and the only Homecoming Game Arizona won in my time as a student.
3 & 4. 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game and 2016 Rose Bowl
No. 3 and 4 are packaged together because the two are directly linked. Christian McCaffrey’s performance in the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game was, at the time, the single greatest individual performance I ever had the privilege of covering.
So good was McCaffrey’s multifaceted dominance of USC that night in Silicon Valley, one could hear through the press box wall as the Trojans defensive staff shouted obscenities with every feat.
That showing of 207 yards rushing, 105 receiving with a PASSING TOUCHDOWN lasted as the No. 1 top individual performance I’d covered for all of four weeks. The next month in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl — the first Rose Bowl I covered — McCaffrey outdid himself.
His 75-yard touchdown reception on the game’s first play set the tone for the day, which also included a punt return for a touchdown. McCaffrey’s PR score made him just the third player in college football history to score via rush, reception, pass, kickoff and punt return in the same season, joining Reggie Bush and C.J. Spiller.
I asked him about that milestone at Rose Bowl media day. Not to take credit for McCaffrey reaching that milestone, but…
I didn’t hear any aggravated swears in the Rose Bowl press box, but the full-throated boos from Iowa fans perturbed by the Stanford band’s halftime “Ode to FarmersOnly.com” were a fitting stand-in.
2. 2009 FCS National Championship: Villanova vs. Montana
Before December 2009, I never worked a title game in any sport, at any level. This was my last before 2016, in another contest also involving Villanova. While Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater to down North Carolina set a standard I doubt will ever be matched, the bar Andy Talley and the 2009 Villanova football Wildcats established was indeed high.
Current San Diego Padres outfielder Matt Szczur stole the show, leading underdog Villanova past undefeated Montana in a 23-21 thriller, the last FCS title game played in Chattanooga’s Finley Stadium.
The entire week was an unforgettable experience unto itself. I was in Chattanooga for the days leading up to the title game, joining the teams for dinners with local charities and on a tour of the impressive Chattanooga aquarium; observing practices; and even interviewing Miss Tennessee to get her take on the title game.
Her prediction of a Villanova championship, which she based on the Wildcats wearing suits to their luncheon the day before while Montana’s players donned sweats, proved prescient. I also count Villanova’s win as karma for a Griz fan cussing at me for not knowing where the bathroom was in the lobby of the Chattanooga Choo-Choo.
1. 2017 Rose Bowl Game: USC vs. Penn State
Much like the aforementioned title game of the 2016 Final Four, I can’t imagine another contest matching this for a very long time. With the exception of the 2006 National Championship Game between USC and Texas, this is the best Rose Bowl Game ever played.
USC’s initial march down the field and score felt like a redux of the previous year, when Pac-12 representative Stanford pasted Iowa. And indeed, this one matched the 2016 edition in that it featured one of the top individual performances I’ve ever witnessed live — Sam Darnold’s five touchdown passes and nearly 500 yards set Rose Bowl Game records — but Penn State responded with Saquon Barkley and Chris Godwin putting on a show of similar caliber.
The Nittany Lions built a two-score lead, only for USC to rally with a 17-0 burst in the fourth quarter.
Beyond the historic nature of this contest, the 2017 Rose Bowl was a great working experience for the stories that came from it. Leon McQuay III making the game-sealing interception was poetic. Zach Banner’s joyful tears on the field amid the celebration signaled the culmination of a sometimes rocky career ending in triumph.
It was everything a fan or journalist could ask for from college football.