If anybody out there was wondering whatever happened to USC's proud football tradition, be advised that it hasn't moved to Westwood after all. Trojan tradition is alive and well. It just doesn't play tailback anymore. The storied Trojan runners of yesteryear have become fat-cat alumni, and three of the most illustrious—Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson and Anthony Davis—were among the 92,516 spectators who packed the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday as Southern Cal proved that a quarterback, a wide receiver, a safety and, maybe, a coach can win football games too. And win the Trojans did, 17-13 over favored UCLA. That tied the Bruins for the Pac-10 championship with a 7-1 record—UCLA was 9-2 overall, USC 8-3—and earned Southern Cal the Rose Bowl and a rematch with Michigan State, which beat the Trojans 27-13 in the season opener.
Of the many USC contributors, none was more instrumental than Rodney Peete, the junior quarterback. Peete is an impressive young man, but he wasn't supposed to be 23 of 35 for 304 yards and two touchdowns' worth of impressive against what many people had called the quickest defense in the nation. The consensus had been that by the fourth quarter, Rodney would be getting no respect. So all Peete did was go out and play his game, snare a Rose Bowl berth and, when it was over, act as though he wasn't even surprised by it all. Peete is too good to have just been born in the ordinary way. Obviously, somebody from the USC film school must have dreamed him up.
To be sure, Peete did have some help. "Oh, I'll be throwing it up there," he had predicted on Friday. "I have the confidence our receivers will go up and get it." And Erik Affholter, a 6'1", 190-pound junior wide receiver who received his USC scholarship as a kicker, came through, going up and getting it all day. He would finish the game with nine catches for 151 yards.
One of those grabs was the big one. With 7:59 left in the game, the Trojans were down 13-10. Peete looked across the huddle at Affholter and called, "529 Throwback." "Erik had been making some great catches, catches your average receiver couldn't make," said Peete. "The coverage put Erik in a one-on-one situation, so I just put it up there and let him make the play."
November 30, 1987
Peete fired a 33-yard pass high to the back corner of the end zone. "There really wasn't too much to think about," said Affholter after the game. "It was actually a bad pattern, to tell you the truth. But Rodney just put it in a perfect spot."
Affholter was behind the Bruin defender, Marcus Turner. Affholter bobbled the ball momentarily and fell out of the end zone, but the officials ruled that he had possession with the requisite one foot inbounds.
"We were supposed to have no chance—none," said USC safety Mark Carrier, who intercepted two of Bruin quarterback Troy Aikman's passes. Carrier's second interception was at UCLA's 38-yard line with about a minute left. "They were bigger, faster, stronger," said Carrier. "But we had Rodney."
Indeed, who else but Peete could suffer through what he called "the worst half of football in my life" and, with 0:14 left in that half and the score 10-0 UCLA, throw an end zone interception to Bruin strong safety Eric Turner, then sprint 80 yards to run down Turner and prevent a UCLA touchdown. "I've never had an interception returned on me in my life," said Peete. "I wasn't about to let it happen now. I knew I had to come out and play the best second half of my life."
"That was the key play of the first half," said Larry Smith, who is in his first year as coach at USC. "Without that, I don't think I could have acted like I did at halftime."
And how had Smith acted in the locker room at halftime? Peete and the rest of the Trojans said Smith was "jumping up and down" as he yelled, "They can't keep us out of the end zone." Smith denied having behaved so demonstratively. Another USC tradition has it that the school's football coaches are cool customers. The presence of former USC coach John McKay at the game was pressure enough for Smith, but the Trojan band even spelled out McKay's name as part of their halftime show. And McKay had never let 'em see him sweat, had he?
"The tradition is here, no doubt," Smith had said a couple of days before the game. "But you can't run it down people's throats with the tailback anymore." Referring to the victory sign customarily made by Trojan fans and players at various times during games, he said, "And it isn't making a V with your fingers and holding it in the air, either. But we don't shy away from tradition. We want to use it." Indeed, when the game was over, Smith was caught flashing a V.
UCLA had some tradition going for it, too. The Bruins had played in three of the last five Rose Bowls, winning all three times—down through the years, they have won at Pasadena five times, USC 18 times—and they had the better team, to boot. The way the game was scripted, the Bruins were about to go undefeated in the conference. Aikman was the top-rated quarterback in the nation coming in, completing a remarkable 68.2% of his passes. And don't even mention Gaston Green, the Bruins' redoubtable tailback, who, with 8:35 left in the first quarter, had given his team a 7-0 lead on a six-yard run on which he neatly reversed his field. Bruin place-kicker Alfredo Velasco kicked a 32-yard field goal later in the second quarter and a 38-yarder early in the third. Meanwhile, UCLA got good work out of a defense full of agiles, mobiles and hostiles that had surrendered only 13.2 points per game over the previous eight weeks.
But USC's defense repeatedly hurried Aikman with a five-and six-man rush and employed an effective man-to-man pass coverage that cost the UCLA quarterback three interceptions—as many as he had thrown all year. Green got his yards (147 on 30 carries), yet USC all but took him out of the game by holding the ball a whopping 12:24 of the third quarter as Peete found Affholter in the clear for six of his nine catches.
All this amounted to a cruel blow between friends, which Smith and UCLA coach Terry Donahue are. "There's more made out of our friendship than what's really there," Smith insisted. Of course, he was talking before the game, when Los Angeles was working itself into a high old pitch—or what passes for it in L.A.—over the intracity rivalry that for the 33rd time in 57 meetings would decide the Rose Bowl host. In fact, Smith and Donahue are old friends, having met at a coaches' meeting in 1976, when Smith was in his first year as head coach at Tulane, and Donahue was the new coach at UCLA. They renewed their acquaintance in 1980 when both were coaches at the East-West Shrine Game. In 1982 the two coaches and their families ran into each other at Sea World in San Diego and spent the next day together at the beach. Since then the coaches' wives, Cheryl Smith and Andrea Donahue, have gotten together for lunch on several occasions. But what cemented the Smith-Donahue friendship was the fact that twice when Smith was coaching at Arizona (1980-86), his team had propelled UCLA into the Rose Bowl by beating Arizona State in the final week of the season. On both occasions the Donahues sent flowers to the Smiths. Donahue probably won't be calling FTD this year.
It was Peete who fulfilled Smith's halftime prophecy that the Trojans would not be denied the end zone. The Trojans got onto the scoreboard midway through the third quarter when freshman Quin Rodriguez kicked a 26-yard field goal. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Peete blurred a six-yard pass into the stomach of senior flanker Randy Tanner, and then on USC's next possession found Affholter for the roses. Bigger, faster and stronger can get tired, too, and that's what happened to UCLA's overextended defense.
"So many people didn't give us a chance in this game," said Peete, who threw two touchdown passes that were signaled back by flags, one in the second quarter and another in the third. "But we had enough guys believe it."
The believers included that kicker-turned-receiver, Affholter. He had booted a 64-yard field goal during his junior year at Oak Park High in Agoura, Calif. But he also has a 36-inch vertical jump, sticky hands and a decent afterburner. "Nebraska and Oklahoma recruited me as a kicker," Affholter said. "But I wanted to be in on the action. Be part of the game." He is the Trojans' long-distance field goal specialist. He's also second-team wide receiver on the USC depth chart, but Peete had so much confidence in him you would have thought he was the second coming of former Trojan receiver Bob Chandler, who made a point of seeking out Affholter in the locker room afterward.
"They took you out once on a third-and-seven," Chandler told him. "I yelled, 'Put that kid back in there!' I just had to see you." Affholter returned the compliment to the ex-Bill and ex-Raider. "Nice to meet you, too." Some of Affholter's new fans were calling him the Sweetest and Sir Clutch. Affholter merely smiled, as if they didn't understand that this was the way things were supposed to turn out.
In high school, Affholter was the very definition of an all-purpose player. He kicked field goals and extra points, scored touchdowns both as a tailback and wide receiver and played defensive back and linebacker in his spare time, on at least one occasion playing every down in a game. His high school coach, Fred Yamano, said at the time, "He's not the kind of guy who likes to stand on the sidelines waiting to kick. He doesn't like to watch."
"Almost everybody was at their best today," said Affholter. "We had to be. Me and Rodney were teaming up pretty well." Did he say pretty well? The Trojans were masters of UCLA and understatement on the same day. "We didn't want to go to the Sun Bowl," said Affholter. "We wanted to be home for Christmas. Besides, USC belongs in the Rose Bowl."
Peete, for his part, was shy about the praise he received afterward, preferring to spread the credit around the locker room while wearing a T-shirt with WE BELIEVE in front and MAKE IT HAPPEN on the back. "Credit our defense. They shut down one of the great offenses in America," said Peete. "Credit Erik, and Coach Smith, and our tradition, and the Lord, and...."
O.K., Rodney, we get the point. Credit anybody but yourself. Tradition also demands a gracious winner at USC. Next you'll be saying that the Trojans were lucky to win. Here, Peete amiably drew the line. Lowering his voice to a whisper, he hardened his eyes for an instant and said, "No. We dominated them."