History shows UCLA could be a dangerous underdog for USC

It rates among the greatest plays in the history of the USC-UCLA football rivalry. And it never should have happened.

The underdog Bruins were backed up against their goal line with the score tied and time running down. They had John Barnes, a walk-on quarterback, under center.

“I probably should have worked for a first down,” Barnes recalled.

Gambling instead, he called an audible, lofting a pass down the sideline. J.J. Stokes caught the ball for a 90-yard touchdown, giving the Bruins a 38-37 victory over No. 15 USC in a 1992 matchup no one figured they could win.

“I don’t know that being ranked or unranked makes a bit of difference with this game,” Barnes said. “Anything can happen.”

Keep that thought in mind when the No. 11 Trojans face UCLA as 16-point favorites at the Coliseum on Saturday.

Twenty-three times over the past 87 years, the Bruins have played in the rivalry as an unranked team expected to lose to ranked USC. In eight of those games — slightly more than a third — they have managed a win or a tie.

The string of UCLA upsets began in the late 1950s and stretches to the famed 13-9 victory that knocked the Trojans out of the national championship picture in 2006.

“As the old saying goes,” USC coach Clay Helton said, “throw the records out the window.”

College rivalries tend to be unpredictable if only because they involve athletes who are in their late teens and early 20s. Emotion can make a difference.

With USC and UCLA, the spoiler role has cut both ways — unranked Trojans teams have a 6-6 record against ranked UCLA teams. But, given USC’s greater success in football, the Bruin upsets seem more memorable, even if early examples weren’t exactly pretty.

In 1959, Billy Kilmer led a UCLA team that had won only three times and seemed to have no chance against No. 2 USC.

On a day when he completed just six of 19 passes, Kilmer was able to draw a pass-interference call on a long throw downfield, setting up the lone touchdown in a 10-3 win.

Twelve years later, with the Trojans ranked 15th and favored by almost two touchdowns, UCLA attempted eight passes, four of which fell incomplete. The other four were intercepted.

Mostly, the Bruins ran the ball, hoping to eat up the clock.

"We were underdogs, so we stalled," coach Pepper Rodgers later told The Times. "We never ran out of bounds and we took the full complement in the huddle … and we pull off a major miracle in the worst football game ever played."

The final score was 7-7. And that was a major miracle?

“Well, that's what I figured," Rodgers said.

Of all the UCLA coaches, Terry Donahue might have best understood the weight of the crosstown matchup.

After his 1984 team upset Pac-10 Conference champion USC 29-10, he said: “It’s just another battle in a long war, and it’s a war that will go on as long as there are Bruins and as long as there are Trojans.”

Donahue was a frequent thorn in the Trojans’ side over the course of a tenure that began in 1976 and lasted two decades.

His teams scored upsets in 1992 and 1994, when the Bruins ended USC’s hopes of reaching the Rose Bowl. They won as underdogs again in 1995.

“This is bigger than any bowl game could be,” quarterback Cade McNown said after the 24-20 victory at the Coliseum.

USC tight end Johnny McWilliams was less enthusiastic: “We’re a more talented team than UCLA, but we found a way to lose again. This hurts really bad.”

The pain of that afternoon would ultimately pale in comparison to what happened at the Rose Bowl in 2006.

The Trojans were ranked second in the nation and headed for a showdown against Ohio State for the Bowl Championship Series title. But they hit a roadblock against the 6-5 Bruins, whose defense kept the score close into the final minutes.

With USC just 19 yards from a go-ahead touchdown, UCLA linebacker Eric McNeal leaped, tipped a pass and made a diving interception to preserve the 13-9 victory.

“We dominated SC when nobody thought we had a chance,” McNeal later said. “And that’s all that matters.”

Barnes can relate to that sentiment.

Twenty-five years after his shining moment, the former quarterback works as vice president of sales for a Northern California technology company. He remembers the week of practice before his 5-5 team faced the Trojans.

“There was a lot in the paper about past games, about what it means to alumni,” he said. “For the players, I don’t want to say we put more effort into it, but there was a bit more concentration.”

He added: “You know it’s a game that is going to be talked about after you retire.”

Something about this season rings familiar to him.

Once again, the Bruins are 5-5 after starting fast, losing a string of games, then winning just before the crosstown rivalry.

“I was kind of looking at their season,” he said. “And it’s not much different from ours.”

It might be a good omen, Barnes figures. He wonders if it’s time for another upset.

david.wharton@latimes.com

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