The 103rd annual Rose Bowl Game was getting away from Southern Cal, thanks in large part to the overlooked receiver in blue who stole the show from two notable Trojans — Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster — and terrorized USC for several big catches, including two scores.
And when that man — Penn State true junior Chris Godwin — scored his second touchdown, via a 72-yard deep ball that gave Penn State an eight-point lead in the third quarter, the Trojans’ coaches had finally had enough.
So they turned to their own star, true junior cornerback Jackson, and told him to go play backyard football against Godwin.
“After that second one, coach told me just to get over there and follow him,” Jackson said. “He was hot, and coach was like ‘You hot, so go stick him — see whose got the most fire.’ And I stuck him.”
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Jackson did, at least for a while. And while Godwin indeed was done terrorizing the Trojans, who rallied for a thrilling 52-49 comeback victory Monday that was capped by a 46-yard field goal as time expired, Jackson would not be on the field for that decisive play.
That’s because, shortly after he was assigned to start traveling with Godwin, Jackson — a multidimensional, electric threat who is widely projected to be a top-40 pick in this year’s NFL Draft (provided he declares) — suffered what appeared to be a serious leg injury on a kickoff return that made everyone’s heart sink.
“When that happened, I felt for him,” said Godwin, who finished with nine catches for 187 yards and two scores. “As a competitor, you want to go against the best guys, and for him to be following me around, I thought it was going to be an interesting matchup. Obviously things didn’t work out that way but I wish him nothing but the best.”
Jackson, who had an interception off a deflected pass against Penn State , couldn’t put any weight on the foot and needed to be helped off the field during the game. He didn’t return, but in a bit of good fortune, he later said he simply rolled his ankle.
“When I found out it wasn’t anything bad, I actually thanked God,” said fellow USC junior Smith-Schuster, who is also expected to be taken with a top-40 pick in this year’s draft, provided he declares.
Jackson returned to the sideline, where he stood and cheered and even hopped some during the Trojans’ comeback, as they scored 17 unanswered fourth-quarter points.
In the locker room, Jackson stood on the ankle and seemed fine. That’s good, because NFL types are enamored with the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder’s skill-set and versatility. In addition to recording five interceptions this year, he also played running back and receiver and returned kicks and punts.
“Athletic and fast,” one NFL scout said. “Playmaker ... he has enough special (traits) to overcome his lack of size.”
Rather than tout himself, however, Jackson noted that he was impressed by Godwin’s performance, which included multiple acrobatic and contested catches.
“He’s a hell of a receiver,” Jackson said. “He’s a stud. He was just always fighting. That’s what impressed me. A lot of players might give up, but he kept fighting. He’ll makes plays when he had to.”
Southern Cal safety Chris Hawkins said the Trojans knew about Godwin, who is projected to be a fourth-round pick by CBS Sports if he declares, before the game. But it didn’t even matter.
“He’s not the fastest guy, but he’s got hands — he can catch the rock,” Hawkins said. “He’s smooth. He’s a technician.”
But Godwin, who entered the game with 50 catches for 795 yards and nine touchdowns, took little consolation in his star turn.
“I felt like I had a pretty good game, but none if that really matters unless you get the win,” said Godwin, who is listed at 6 feet 1 and 205 pounds. “I’m disappointed I couldn’t make the play to help us get the victory.”
Smith-Schuster, who boasts the size-speed combination NFL teams like at 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds, was outgained by Godwin, but he still finished with seven catches for 133 yards and a touchdown.
“Big and strong, average route runner,” said one NFL scout, who expects him to go in the first two rounds. “Still needs work and polish but will be a good pro. “Didn’t have a dominant year.”
Smith-Schuster, who entered the game with 63 catches for 781 yards and nine touchdowns, knows he needs to work on his route-running and on catching the ball away from his body. Still, he was happy with his showing.
“I wanted to show that in big games like this, when it’s close, I’m composed,” he said. “When my number’s on the line, I’ll make the play.”
Afterward, none of the three was prepared to talk about their potential NFL futures. Godwin — who sat quietly at his locker with his head covered, staring at his phone — was too engrossed in the loss, while Smith-Schuster and Jackson were too busy celebrating the moment in a relieved locker room.
“Even though I didn’t finish, it felt like I did,” Jackson said. “We got the win, so I can’t complain.”