There were three issues to be settled last Saturday at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium: Will 1992 see the return of Southern Cal to its former perch among the sport's powers? Is San Diego State, loser of 18 straight games to non-WAC, non-Big West opponents, at last a college football biggie? And is the Aztecs' Marshall Faulk, the sophomore running back who last year led the nation in rushing, heir to Tony Dorsett, Herschel Walker and Barry Sanders or merely a guy who runs up heavyweight yardage against lightweight opponents? The afternoon ended with the score tied 31-31, and a tie often means that nothing was settled, nothing established. In the case of Saturday's game, nothing could be further from the truth. To wit:
•It was established that San Diego State was, on this afternoon, a better team than Southern Cal. The Aztecs simply created more chances to win than did the Trojans. In fact, State kicker Andy Trakas was given two opportunities in the game's final 54 seconds to kick the winning field goal but missed both times, from 30 yards and then from 55. Coach Al Luginbill was so upset by his team's failure to win that he could barely sputter through a short post-game press conference. "I don't feel real damn good right now," he said.
His players moped around and clearly shared their coach's assessment. Faulk was so distraught that he fled from the stadium, tears in his eyes and lump in his throat, refusing to talk to anyone.
Conversely, coach Larry Smith and his Trojans, coming off a calamitous 3-8 season, seemed rather pleased that they had come away with a tie. "It's very rare when a field goal kicker misses one at that range," Smith said of Trakas's 30-yard miss. Indeed, USC had scrambled to 31-31 when its kicker, Cole Ford, drilled a 32-yarder with 5:36 left in the game.
September 13, 1992
It appeared that San Diego State wanted to win more. With 5:24 to go in the third quarter, Aztec quarterback David Lowery underthrew a pass into the end zone toward wide receiver Darnay Scott. Trojan cornerback Jason Oliver was in perfect position to make the interception, but somehow—apparently through sheer will—Scott caught the ball for the score.
•It was established that Faulk—who rushed for 220 mostly brilliant yards on 27 carries, including three exquisite touchdown runs—can flat-out play football. In the Aztecs' second game last season, Faulk, then a true freshman, set an NCAA single-game rushing record of 386 yards (since broken) and scored seven touchdowns, despite the fact that he was not the starting tailback. Even though he missed 3½ games with broken ribs, Faulk finished the season as the nation's leading rusher, both in total yards (1,429) and in yards per game (158.8), and as the leading scorer (15.56 points per game). A lot of critics remained unconvinced. Sure, they were saying, he burned Miami for 154 yards in the season finale, but Faulk had piled up most of his '91 yardage against teams from the WAC. How would he do against a steady diet of quality opponents?
Southern Cal, while a long way removed from its glory days, is still in that class, and Faulk was magnificent. He showed the Trojans a lot of things, among them that speed kills. He scored his first touchdown with 5:08 to go in the first quarter when he took off for the right side, was hit twice behind the line of scrimmage and kept right on going. It was as fine a one-yard run as will come along this season. A mere mortal would have been down for a two-yard loss. In the third quarter, with 8:38 to go, he took a straight handoff up the middle for 11 yards, making both Oliver and safety Jason Sehorn miss with his quickness. Later, with 1:25 remaining in the third, Faulk started cruising to his right, then, wham, cut up the sideline for a 59-yard score, leaving defenders peering at him from a distance.
Faulk is the difference between San Diego State's being simply a good WAC team and being one that can play with the big boys from the glamour conferences. So how was Luginbill fortunate enough to have lured Faulk from New Orleans? "It was as though the football god said, 'San Diego State, you need him, so here he is,' " replies the coach.
•It was established that Lowery is that rare breed, a down-and-dirty quarterback. If you have to clean out a bar and you get to take one guy along to help, take Lowery. His teammates love his style, which is why he, and not Faulk, was voted the Aztecs' Most Valuable Player last season. On Saturday, Lowery's numbers weren't special—17 completions on 39 attempts, 162 yards, one touchdown and an interception—but he got the job done. "The problem with playing quarterback," says Lowery, "is everybody can tell when you mess up. But if you lose your confidence, you're done." Last season he threw five interceptions against New Mexico and four against Miami, and his confidence remained intact.
Lowery's strong arm allows him to make the long, difficult throw from one hash mark across the field to the other, which is crucial to the Aztecs' wide-open offense. But Luginbill says, "Mostly, he just believes good things are going to happen to him."
•It was established, two years after Todd Marinovich's premature departure to the NFL left the Trojans without a quality quarterback, that USC may now have one in sophomore Rob Johnson, who threw for four touchdowns, three of them to split end Johnnie Morton (24, 17 and 19 yards). Alas, Johnson fumbled twice and threw an interception. But he has football savvy, which is why he was awarded the job over last year's starter, Reggie Perry.
"He's a bright-eyed guy," says Trojan quarterbacks coach Ray Dorr of Johnson. "He isn't polished, but he's going to get there." USC needs this to happen sooner rather than later because the strength of the team is its star-studded collection of receivers.
•It was established that Southern Cal, a.k.a. Tailback U, is still searching for its next great runner. It has been 11 autumns since Marcus Allen, the last heralded Trojan tailback, played his final season of college ball. Junior college transfer Estrus Crayton, the current starter, will not make anyone forget another junior college transfer at the USC tailback spot named O.J. Simpson, and Trojan eyes are already turning toward freshman Dwight McFadden. The odd thing about watching Faulk last Saturday was not seeing him in the USC backfield.
In the end this deadlock not only answered a number of questions, it also offered a splendid example of postgame composure by kicker Trakas. In a corner of the Aztec dressing room, Trakas stood moments after his two misses and faced interrogators pressing for details of how he had failed. He did not run and hide, mumble and evade. He stood there and fielded the queries with class and dignity. "I feel terrible," he said. "I don't know how I missed the 30-yarder. All I know is sometimes I'm going to stink it up. It's part of the position. Kickers are either in the penthouse or the outhouse, and I had too much of the outhouse today."
Meanwhile both teams face continuing trials. The Aztecs have a night game this Thursday at Brigham Young, then a chance—again—at a major nonconference win when they play UCLA on Sept. 26. USC has the unenviable task of playing at Oklahoma and Washington for its next two games. Says Smith, "Adversity can tear you apart or bring you together." And a tie delays either from occurring for at least another week.