One thing about Hollywood, when it gets its hands on a good story line you can be sure it will be repeated from here to eternity. As a consequence, everyone knew what to expect in last Saturday's revival of the annual pre-Thanksgiving extravaganza that features USC and UCLA battling for the league championship. Also at stake was a certain ancillary right for the winner, to wit, a Rose Bowl berth.
Thus, as the final minutes of the game ticked away, the crowd of 90,387 in the Coliseum, and everyone at home tuned in on TV, leaned forward, knowing that the script called for a dramatic finish—an interception, a long touchdown pass, a dazzling run. The suspicion is that a secret codicil to the Los Angeles city charter requires that the USC-UCLA game has to end on a spine-tingling note, as it did last year when USC won with a 38-yard field goal two seconds before the credits were rolled.
In the 48th game of the series, favored USC struck early and almost turned the contest into a rout, but UCLA came back to trail by only 17-10 with 5:10 remaining. The Trojans had the ball on their own 20 following the kickoff, but they had been stalled the whole second half and the script plainly demanded that they would be stopped once more. Whereupon UCLA would take over and, zingo, a spectacular Bruin drive would unfold, the only question being whether it would result in a touchdown.
What the fans got instead was a sunset seminar of power-I ball control featuring USC Tailback Charles White. The crisis point came with 1:24 left, USC in possession on its 47, third down and six to go. The ball went to White for the 32nd time, and he raced around the left side for 11 yards and a first down. The Trojans then ran out the clock and left the field clutching big bouquets of roses. Since 1967 the two teams have met seven times with the right to go to the Rose Bowl hanging on the outcome, and the Trojans have won each time. Like they say, it plays well.
November 27, 1978
It so happens that the 11 yards White gained on that key play also shot him past Anthony Davis to become the leading rusher in USC—and PCC, AAWU, Pac-8 and Pac-10 conference history—as a junior.
The warmups for this year's game maintained the same high level of nonsense as in the past. There were all the pranks and insults and hoopla that help Angelenos forget the Skid Row stabber or whatever fiend might currently be afflicting the town. The staffs of the Daily Bruin and Daily Trojan played the latest version of a flag-football classic called the Blood Bowl, won this time by the Daily Bruin, and published parodies of each other's sheets. At a Coliseum-area coffee shop, a waiter lifted his apron to show off a button pinned to his belt proclaiming GOD is A TROJAN. Outside the Coliseum, button connoisseurs wandered among the picnickers and tailgaters and sighted some hoary—and usually obscene—standbys.
If Trojan Coach John Robinson had sported a button it would have stated SPEED KILLS. Robinson rates UCLA Halfback James Owens, the 1977 NCAA and AAU high hurdles champion, as the fastest football player he has ever seen. Owens is always a threat to escalate a kickoff return or a dive play into a touchdown. Robinson's strategy was to shut off the possibility of a long return by having Frank Jordan kick off—a new role for the fellow who kicked the game-winning field goal in '77. It paid off. Jordan, who has proved his accuracy by kicking 22 field goals in 33 attempts in 1977 and '78, kicked the ball away from Owens all afternoon.
For his part, UCLA Coach Terry Donahue worried about his defense being "stretched"—trying to stop USC's rushing attack, which features White and Fullback Lynn Cain, at the same time it was trying to shut down the passing of Quarterback Paul McDonald.
Jordan's 21-yard field goal gave USC a 3-0 lead in the first quarter, and Trojan fans felt that was a particularly good sign because 1) the Trojans usually spot their foes a few points and 2) they go wild in the second quarter, having outscored opponents 103-6 in that period this season.
It was no different Saturday as McDonald threw touchdown passes to Calvin Sweeney and Kevin Williams in the second quarter to give USC a 17-0 half-time lead. On the first one, a 36-yarder, McDonald used what the Trojan staff calls a "check with me." He called two plays in the huddle, then announced in code at the line of scrimmage which one he was going to use.
"I saw that they were playing man-to-man in the secondary," McDonald said, "and probably were coming with a blitz, so why not go for it and go for the big score?"
The second pass came on a play put in especially for the game—nothing very tricky, just something USC used to keep from being too predictable. McDonald started to roll out to his right, then stopped and hit Williams crossing right to left in the end zone. Previously, Williams had always gone to the right corner on that play.
UCLA's fine pair of runners, Owens and Theotis Brown, who had a pinched nerve in his neck, were stopped cold by the Trojan defensive line, and in fact, the good-run, no-pass Bruins never did keep a drive going, gaining only 118 yards rushing but losing 56 for a measly net of 62 yards. And when they finally got a break in the third quarter, they blew it.
After recovering a Cain fumble on the USC six, UCLA fought to a third and goal on the two. Owens then bolted in, only to have the touchdown nullified by a man-in-motion penalty. And if that hadn't halted the Bruins, something else would have—they had 12 men on the field, including two split ends, when Owens crossed the goal line. UCLA settled for Peter Boermeester's 22-yard field goal to make the score 17-3.
The botch-up perhaps cost UCLA a tie or a victory, because in the fourth quarter Quarterback Rick Bashore, who is 12th in Pac-10 passing, connected with Severn Reece on an 81-yard touchdown play. Boermeester's PAT made it 17-10 and UCLA seemed to have plenty of time-to score again with another lightning bolt. Bashore and his offensive teammates anxiously waited on the sideline "to get the ball back and get our clock options going." But they never got possession after kicking off. White was the ballcarrier on eight of the next nine plays, seven of them in a row. Behind determined blocking it was student body right ("28 pitch"), a burst up the middle, student body left—and then that third-down 11-yard run around the left side that set the records and clinched USC's 22nd Rose Bowl appearance.
"When you've got a guy like that, why not go to him?" said McDonald. "He'll get the yards for you and doesn't make many mistakes."
White finished with 145 yards on 33 carries to give him a career total of 3,739. McDonald hit seven of 10 passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns, and he now has not thrown an interception in his last 94 passes. As an assistant and head coach at USC, Robinson hasn't lost to UCLA in six games. The defense allowed but nine first downs, and one of those came on a penalty.
Too bad the Trojans can't sit back and savor all those impressive stats. But after consecutive tough games against California, Stanford. Washington and UCLA, who should USC have to play this Saturday but old rival Notre Dame, winner of eight straight.
Mention of the Irish seemed to excite Robinson more than worry him. He has convinced himself and his players that grappling on the grass weekend after weekend with the likes of Alabama and Notre Dame is more fun than being a weevil in a cracker barrel.
"Many people said, 'Hey, you can't make it through that schedule.' They say our schedule's a man-killer. Well, we've got some men that it couldn't kill." Besides, the Notre Dame game and a season-closing laugher against Hawaii give the Trojans something to do until the Second Season begins and ends in Pasadena on Jan. 1.