Stuffed with history, USC-UCLA is a turkey this year

There was a time, many moons ago, when the annual USC-UCLA game was almost always as appetizing as a huge serving of grandma’s Thanksgiving turkey and dressing smothered in gravy. But for supporters of the crosstown rivals located just 2 miles apart in Los Angeles, this year is probably going to be more of a “pass me the Pepto” kind of game.

USC under Clay Helton comes into this 88th meeting of crosstown rivals at 5-5 (4-4 in the Pac-12 South). UCLA under first-year coach Chip Kelly comes in 2-8 (2-5 in the Pac-12 South). Those 13 losses are the most the two schools have ever had combined going into the game in series history. USC needs a win to be bowl eligible this season. UCLA just needs this season to be over soon.

This series is far removed from its glory years, but oh what glory years they were. Those were the days of USC’s Tailback U with Mike Garrett, Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson, Ricky Bell, Charles White, Anthony Davis, and Marcus Allen. The days of standout Bruin defenders like Kenny Easley and Ken Norton Jr. The days of all-time coaching greats like UCLA’s Tommy Prothro, Dick Vermeil, and Terry Donahue or USC’s John McKay and John Robinson.

Simpson won the Heisman Trophy in 1968 | Courtesy USC Athletics

There were lots of Heisman Trophy winners like UCLA’s Gary Beban (1967) and USC’s Garrett (1965), Simpson (1968), White (1979), and Allen (1981), and plenty who could have been like Lynn Swann and Troy Aikman.

Yes, this once calendar-circling matchup has been reduced to a handful of interesting tidbits that have very little to do with how the actual game will be decided on the field. A few fun facts about the annual tussle for the Victory Bell between Southern Cal and UCLA upcoming Saturday in the Rose Bowl include: 

  • The Trojans and Bruins are two of only three Football Bowl Series schools in the entire NCAA that have never played a Football Championship Series (FCS) opponent since those divisions were established in 1978. Notre Dame is the other.
  • Speaking of Notre Dame, USC is 20-20-2 against UCLA in seasons when its next game is against the Fighting Irish, as is the case this year.
  • This is one of the few games played throughout the entirety of the college football season in which both teams will wear their home (colored) jerseys. The tradition of USC wearing its cardinal jerseys and UCLA its blue jerseys regardless of whose home game it is went on from 1949 to 1951 and then from 1957 to 1982 when the NCAA ruled that the visiting team had to wear white. That rule was done away with in 2008 and the home jersey tradition has continued every year since except 2011 when visiting UCLA did choose to wear white jerseys.
USC’s Ronald Jones II | Photo by Long Photography – Courtesy USC Athletics

There was plenty to savor about USC-UCLA in the good ole days, particularly a 1967 matchup between No. 1 UCLA and No. 4 USC (No. 2 in the United Press International weekly coaches’ poll) that is still considered “Game of the Century” good.

That November 18, 1967, meeting in the Los Angeles Coliseum — then home to both teams— indeed had it all. At 7-0-1, UCLA was trying to remain undefeated. A Rose Bowl berth, the Pac-8 Conference title and national championship possibilities were at stake. In a rare instance, the Heisman Trophy winner would basically be decided on the field between front-runners Beban and Simpson. In short, think Alabama vs. Clemson in the era of black-and-white TV.

John McKay was head coach at USC from 1960-75 | Photo courtesy USC Athletics

Actually the game, one of only eight national telecasts the NCAA allowed all season, was broadcast in color by ABC, and it did not disappoint.

UCLA took an early 7-0 lead on a 12-yard run by Greg Jones and extra point by Zenon Andrusyshyn, but USC quickly tied it when linebacker Pat Cashman took a Beban interception 55 yards, and Rikki Aldridge added the PAT. A 12-yard TD run by Simpson in the second quarter and another Aldridge PAT made it 14-7 at the half.

In the third quarter Beban, playing with badly injured ribs, found George Farmer for a 53-yard TD that tied the score 14-14. UCLA then drove into field goal position twice, but 6-foot-8 Billy Hayhoe blocked both Andrusyshyn kicks to keep it tied until Beban went to Dave Nuttall with a touchdown pass that made it 20-14 UCLA. Amazingly Hayhoe blocked yet another low boot by Andrusyshyn on the PAT to set up history.

With 10:38 to play, USC faced third-and-7 at its own 35, and backup QB Toby Page had called a pass play in the huddle. But at the line he saw that the Bruin linebackers would drop back in pass coverage, and he audibled to “23 Blast,” a handoff to Simpson which even O.J. admitted thinking was a terrible call at the time.

But Page was right, “The Juice” was loose and “Sixty four thrilling, captivating, collegiate football yards” later as ABC announcer Chris Schenkel described them, he had scribed a forever moment in the pages of college football history with indelible ink. Aldridge added the all-important PAT to make it 21-20, UCLA never crossed midfield again, and USC went on to win the game, the Rose Bowl 14-3 over Indiana, and the 1967 national championship.

Hall of Famer McKay said of Simpson’s run, “I believe it was the most exciting college run I have ever seen,” but an even greater college football authority in the eyes of many, legendary ABC announcer Keith Jackson, who narrated taped highlights of the game, declared it to be the greatest one he ever saw even years later. And we all know that if Keith said it, then “Whoa…Nellie” it had to be true.

The Trojans got the title, but Beban, who passed for 301 yards despite having a piece of rib cartilage detached, won the Heisman battle over Simpson, who totaled 177 yards and two TDs on 30 carries. Fittingly both were featured on the cover of the November 20 issue of Sports Illustrated released the following Monday with the headline USC vs. UCLA: Showdown in L.A.

USC’s LenDale White in 2004 | Courtesy USC Athletics

In later years, the Trojans captured more national titles (2003 and 2004) and Heismans (Carson Palmer, 2002, Matt Leinart, 2004, Reggie Bush, 2005) under Pete Carroll, but still this game hasn’t evoked those nostalgic feelings of yesteryear for quite awhile.

The two first met on September 28, 1929, and the Trojans won that one 76-0. They followed up the next year with a 52-0 trouncing and have gone on to take command of the series 49-31-7 (officially 47-31-7 after two wins were vacated due to NCAA penalty.) UCLA owns the longest winning streak of eight from 1991 to 1998. USC’s streak of seven straight wins from 1999 to 2005 is not officially recognized because multiple years within it had vacated wins.

USC and UCLA supporters can always hope that any game in the series will produce an iconic moment, image or result that will make it memorable or historic just like Simpson’s run in ‘67. But for this one this year, their best bet is probably to be sure they have plenty of Pepto on hand. H&A

Cover: USC quarterback Todd Marinovich scrambles against UCLA | Photo by Patrick Gee – Courtesy USC Athletics 

USC vs. UCLA will air Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CST on Fox.

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Jimmy Creed

Jimmy Creed

Jimmy Creed is the former award-winning sports editor of The Anniston (Alabama) Star and editor of Saints Digest, the official team publication of the New Orleans Saints. He is a two-time winner of the Alabama Sports Writers Association Herby Kirby Award for the best sports story in the state of Alabama and has received numerous writing awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors, the National Motorsports Press Association. and the Alabama Press Association. He is also the author of NASCAR legend Donnie Allison's biography "Donnie Allison: As I Recall."
Jimmy Creed

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