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How did they do that? It's called Fighting On

Amazing what happens when you don't give in or give up and you just keep playing on. Although explaining exactly what happened, or even how or why, in USC's 52-49 come-from-way-behind win over Penn State is not really possible. They just did it. Enjoy it.

The rule is this is never about us. Because it isn't. And if you think it is, you have no clue. And yet . . . 

How do you explain getting hugged, in this order, by Marcus Allen -- the real Marcus Allen, Max Nikias and Zach Banner in rapid fire right after Matt Boermeester's 46-yard field goal went through to make USC's 52-49 Rose Bowl win as time ran out just a bit more surreal than it already was -- if that's possible.

Which it isn't. You cannot explain how a team that scored touchdowns on four straight offensive plays in the second and third quarters could have possibly lost. But Penn State did -- and did.

Or how a team that allowed that to happen could have possibly won. But USC did.

But with all those hugs, and for every other Trojan who came by, many with tears in their eyes, there was this simple thought that John Baxter explained last Friday. What he most missed after he left USC, he said, was "the best motto in all of sports," as he calls it, "Fight On." . . . "You can't say that or do the sign when you're not at USC."

But on this night, USC said it and showed it. "The best finish in all of sports," Max said Marcus told him with two minutes left and USC down 49-42. It's that whole "Fight On" thing.

"It's the will to win that Sam Darnold has," Marcus said with a shake of his head. "Amazing," Ronnie Lott said, with a big grin he could not get off his face. This was fun for the Trojans on the sidelines.

Although no one had a bigger smile than Leon McQuay III, who went out of Troy as the big winner. Sure he dropped a possible game-winning interception. But then followed it up with another on the next play that set up the win. And he was ready for it. When Matt kicked the game-tying extra point with 1:20 left, all he could think of was "Get back out there and stop them."

No time to celebrate for Leon. As unready as the USC defense was for so much of the second and third quarters, it was ready at the end. No time to get all upset when he dropped that first interception. "You shake it off," Leon said. "And then he gave me another chance . . . he tried to look me off but I didn't go for it," Leon said. He went for the ball instead.

And the rest, as they say, is history -- and hugs.

"Who's got the hats," was all Leon could say immediately after the game. He wanted one. But asked for his explanation of what just happened, all he could say was: "I keep saying it. It's our motto: 'Fight On'."

But some day -- "in a couple of years," Leon said "I'll look back on this and say, 'Dang, that was big.'" 

And sure the "Bush push" win, because it was at Notre Dame, was the only USC game we've ever covered that could top this one for drama and exciting and a finish you'll never forget. But never, not even close, have we seen a USC team with so much emotion after a win, so many tears, such an unabashed thrill of victory after coming so close to the agony of defeat.

This was so special because the team that lost, Big Ten champion Penn State, was so well prepared and unwilling to give in itself. Saquon Barkley [194 yards, two touchdowns], Trace McSorley [18 for 29 for 254 yards and four TDs] and Chris Godwin [nine catches, 187 yards, two TDs] performed even better than their reputations. But as many answers as James Franklin & Co. seemed to have, they didn't have enough.

Not for this USC team on this night in this stadium where so many special things have happened for USC football.

"It says we're back," Banner said, one of the few USC survivors from that postgame fight in the Sun Bowl locker room after a game as far from this as it's possible to play. "Nothing against the Sun Bowl," Zach said, "but I don't remember anything about it . . . because that wasn't USC football."

But he'll never forget 52-49 over Penn State. And he hopes others won't as well. "Top five in the final poll," Zach said. Not bad after 1-3. What he's thinking now that the game was over, Zach said, was: "We earned it. We earned the win in this game -- and all the other stuff." 

All the other wins that gave this USC team the school's 26th 10-win season. And a finish of nine straight. And a look ahead that AD Lynn Swann said was moving in the right direction. "That's a first-year coach and a first-year quarterback," Lynn said of the Clay Helton-Darnold duo."Clay will continue to build a team . . . we're not there yet, it's a building process." But with this finish, Lynn said he likes USC chances for where it will start next season.

Starting with Sam. That five-touchdown, 453 yards passing [473 all-purpose yards] had even the UCLA fan boards agog. Sam missed the Rose Bowl passing yards record by a mere three yards. And he led USC to a Trojan record 52 points, better than in all previous 34 games here.

"That's a great football team," Penn State's Franklin said with Darnold, named the game's Outstanding Offensive Player. Then when USC most needed it, they got a game-high eight tackles from the game's Outstanding Defensive Player, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu. The first-year grad student transfer from Utah went through only one season's -- or one month's -- tough times this past September. But he also "Fought On."

And then when this USC defense most needed it, Stevie was there. Wherever he needed to be. And yeah, the TV replays probably didn't show enough to overturn the call on the field when Stevie came out with that third-quarter fumble. But "that was the right call," Stevie said. "Their lineman was curled up on the ball and I ripped it away from him."

But when this one was over, the most ripping that was done came from this USC team that just would not die or go away, even when it looked like they should. "Can we talk about Deontay Burnett?" Adoree' Jackson said of his fellow Serra High alum after the game as he tried to take the weight off his high ankle sprain that should have him sidelined about a week, he said.

All the slim sophomore did was pull in career-highs for catches [13], yards [164] and most importantly, touchdowns [three] including the game-tying 27-yarder with 1:20 left. And yes, he did hear the ear-piercing cheer that came with it. "I did," he said. "I ran right up to our fans and found my family and signaled them."

The signal? "Fight On," of course. It's a theme here.

If the USC fans had known that wasn't the route he was supposed to run and the ball was supposed to go to someone more shallow, they'd have cheered louder. "That's Deontay," Sam said. "That's just the player he is. He made a play and I saw him."

And then on came Matt Boermeester. "I knew I was going to kick it as soon as Leon intercepted it. He ran right by me."

And so on the field where his father, Peter, was a star, but for UCLA and not in the Rose Bowl, he got the ultimate kick. "You want to be the guy who gets to kick it," Matt said. And so he was. Special teams coach Baxter had told him to stay with his routine. And so he did. He didn't even know how far it was. "It doesn't matter," he said. "You kick them the same way."

But it mattered to his dad, waiting right outside the locker room. The elder Boermeester, who "teed it up for me my first kick down in La Jolla," Matt said, "was stil in a state of shock. I could tell he'd been crying."

He wasn't alone. 

"These kids are the definition of "Fight On," Clay said, "whether it was the season or the game."

On this night, it was both.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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