There were tears in Larry Smith's eyes as he was given the game ball Saturday by tackle Dave Cadigan and hugged by several of his players.
Smith said it wouldn't be easy and that the Wildcats would come into the game trying to prove something to their former coach, claiming that he abandoned them.
And it wasn't easy. Quin Rodriguez's fourth field goal with 1 minute 11 seconds remaining provided the Trojans with a 12-10 victory at the Coliseum and set up a Rose Bowl showdown game with UCLA next Saturday.
USC (7-3 overall, 6-1 in the Pacific 10) can represent the conference in the Rose Bowl by beating UCLA (9-1, 7-0). A UCLA win or a tie puts the Bruins in the Rose Bowl.
There wouldn't have been a climactic USC-UCLA game if the Trojans hadn't beaten the inspired Wildcats (4-4-2, 2-3-2).
"It was the most hard-fought game that I've ever coached in or been around," Smith said, trying to control his emotions. "Both teams played great defense."
USC had to drive 86 yards late in the game to set up Rodriguez's winning 18-yard kick.
The Trojans didn't score a touchdown. Arizona held firmly on its own one-yard line in the first quarter, forcing a field goal, and again late in the third quarter, when USC elected to go for a touchdown rather than a field goal on fourth down at the Wildcat two-yard line.
Tailback Steven Webster came up a yard short, and the Trojans left empty-handed, trailing, 10-6.
USC closed within 10-9 early in the fourth quarter on Rodriguez's 27-yard field goal.
The Trojans got a break when reserve quarterback Jeff Hammerschmidt fumbled as he was hit by strong safety Cleveland Colter. Tim Ryan, USC defensive tackle, picked the ball out of the air and carried it eight yards to the Arizona 18-yard line.
USC appeared ready to take control, but on third down from the 18, quarterback Rodney Peete was flushed out of the pocket and scrambled backward, trying to find an open receiver. He was sacked and fumbled to Arizona for a 35-yard loss.
"It was a dumb, dumb play," said Peete, who was effectively contained most of the afternoon by Arizona's quick defenders. "I played like a freshman. I should have thrown the ball, but I scrambled around, trying to make a big play."
But Arizona couldn't make a first down starting at the USC 47-yard line. A punt rolled dead on the USC 13 with 8:47 remaining.
The Trojans went to work, with Webster getting a big chunk of the yardage when he ducked under a would-be tackler and gained 25 yards on third and two at the USC 33-yard line.
Peete kept the drive alive with a 14-yard pass to fullback Leroy Holt after the Trojans were assessed a delay-of-game penalty on first down at the Arizona 42-yard line.
Holt got the first down, and the Trojans stayed on the ground, Webster and Holt carrying the ball. On fourth down at the Arizona one-yard line, the game belonged to Rodriguez.
The freshman from Mesa, Ariz., was accurate, and the Trojans stuffed the Wildcats on their final possession to preserve the victory.
"I'm just glad to be part of it," said Rodriguez, who was recruited by Arizona. "That last kick was the toughest mentally because it meant the Rose Bowl, a victory-- and there were a lot of friends on my side of the ball and theirs."
Rodriguez kicked his first field goal, 21 yards, in the opening quarter, and then kept USC close at halftime (7-6) with a 42-yard field goal as time ran out in the first half.
While Rodriguez was being interviewed in the USC dressing room, Smith put his arm around the kicker and said, "I'm not going to let him go."
Peete didn't have a particularly good day. In addition to his fumble, he completed only 7 of 20 passes for 90 yards after setting a school record with five touchdown passes last week against Stanford.
"I didn't play as well as I'm capable of playing and I made some bad decisions," Peete said. "I'll have to play 10 times better against UCLA than I did today."
Neither team had much of a passing game. Ronald Veal, Arizona's freshman quarterback, completed 5 of 11 throws for 68 yards, with an interception.
Veal aggravated a shoulder injury suffered last week against Washington and was replaced in the second quarter by Hammerschmidt, a converted safety, who is not a scholarship quarterback.
Hammerschmidt didn't complete a pass in five attempts as Arizona stayed with its wishbone running offense in the last two quarters.
Webster was a big factor for the Trojans, gaining 161 yards in 34 carries, a 4.74 average. He hit holes quickly and turned several possible losses into gains with his elusive bursts.
Holt made some key first downs while gaining 52 yards in 14 carries.
However, Arizona kept Peete from getting outside and took away USC's option.
"It was a very quick defense, and they strung us out from sideline to sideline on the option plays," Peete said.
USC had only 281 yards in total offense, while Arizona was restricted to 164 yards.
The tenor of the game was established in the opening minutes when Veal's pass was intercepted by USC cornerback Chris Hale, who went 21 yards to the Arizona nine-yard line.
Peete rolled out for six yards before reserve tailback Scott Lockwood punched the ball to the Wildcat one-yard line.
A touchdown seemed imminent, but Peete lost two yards on an option run and Rodriguez kicked his first field goal.
Arizona got the only touchdown of the game later in the quarter when a punt apparently hit USC's Randy Tanner on his shoulder pads and the ball was recovered by Arizona's Vince Lotti at the USC 16-yard line.
Veal's second-down pass to wide receiver Derek Hill carried to the USC one, and the quarterback got the touchdown with a sneak on second down.
Rodriguez's field goal just before the half cut the lead to 7-6, and Arizona's Gary Coston made it 10-6 with a 47-yard field goal in the third quarter.
USC then drove to the Arizona two-yard line, where on fourth down, Smith disdained the field-goal try and Webster came up short. There were 17 minutes remaining, and it seemed that the Trojans should have taken whatever points they could get at the time against a stingy Arizona defense.
Smith defended the call, saying:
"I thought we could get it (a touchdown). Our defense had been playing great, and we didn't think they could go 98 yards. It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision. We wanted as many shots at six points as we could get. I think a field goal then would have been a moral victory for them."
However, USC still prevailed, and Peete is anxiously awaiting the big game with UCLA.
"I used to watch USC and UCLA playing for the Rose Bowl when I was a little kid," he said. "I've dreamed for a long time of playing in a game for the Rose Bowl. Now it's here."
USC offensive tackle Dave Cadigan said that Coach Larry Smith kept his emotions in check during a week of practice. "But before the game you could see the intensity in his face and eyes," Cadigan said. "We knew it was a big game for him. And it wasn't a pretty game, but it was a great win." . . . Quin Rodriguez's four field goals tied a USC single-game record set by Steve Jordan in 1983 and equaled by Jordan in 1984. . . . By gaining 161 yards, tailback Steven Webster moved past the 1,000-yard mark (1,075) for the season, the 17th time a Trojan running back has done it. . . . The last time USC won a game without scoring a touchdown was in 1984, a 6-3 win over Arizona State at Tempe, Ariz.