It’s only mid-October, but the elimination process in the Rose Bowl race is well under way.
Only two teams in the last 30 years, Washington in 1981 and UCLA in 1985, have won the Pacific 10 Conference championship with as many as two losses.
Washington Coach Don James is aware of that precedent going into today’s nationally televised game against USC at the Coliseum.
The Huskies are 4-1 overall and 1-1 in conference play, and the third-ranked Trojans are 5-0 and 3-0. So the pressure is mainly on Washington.
A year ago, both teams were under pressure, with a conference loss each, when they played in Seattle. The Trojans won, 37-23, and went on to represent the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl. The Huskies had to settle for third place and an Independence Bowl game against Tulane.
Neither James nor USC Coach Larry Smith is particularly satisfied with his team, but James is probably less satisfied with his 16th-ranked Huskies.
Asked if that ranking is a fair assessment of his team, he said: “I don’t think it is at all. We were 3-0 and had to struggle to beat Purdue, Army and San Jose State. They had us ranked then, and I said it was ridiculous. I still don’t think we’re a top 20 team.”
Smith said the Trojans have yet to play a great team game in all categories: offense, defense and kicking.
He also seems genuinely concerned that his team could suffer a mid-season letdown and is mindful that Washington came close to upsetting second-ranked UCLA before losing, 24-17.
“It’s impossible to keep a fine edge for 11 games,” Smith said. “How teams handle this period of time now, the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh weeks, determines who is where in the last 3 weeks of the season.
“Sure I’m concerned. We came into the locker room after the Oregon game (a 42-14 USC victory last week), and I thought we lost. We had no enthusiasm. Players just get tired, mentally and physically.”
A victory today would give USC its best start since 1975, when it went 7-0, then lost its last four conference games in John McKay’s last season as coach. Undoubtedly, Smith will regard that prospect as a motivational tool for his team.
Since last playing in the Rose Bowl in 1982, Washington has been frustrated, mainly by UCLA and USC.
Asked if the conference’s power structure is now confined to those schools, James said: “It moves around. I think the 1985, 1986 and 1987 Arizona State teams were great teams. I think our 1986 team was as good as we’ve ever been. We lost to USC and tied UCLA.
“The league has gotten much better. Nobody probably compares to USC and UCLA, but I guarantee you one thing: Arizona is a good football team; so is Oregon. Washington State is playing like gangbusters. At the end of it, we’ll know where the power is.”
As for his team, he’s tight-lipped on the status of his quarterback, Cary Conklin, who reportedly jammed the thumb of his passing hand in a mid-week practice. James won’t confirm or deny it.
The only official word from Washington is that Conklin will start today. If he can’t play extensively, it will be the second straight week that the Trojans haven’t confronted a team’s star quarterback. An ankle injury prevented Oregon’s Bill Musgrave from playing.
James is reasonably satisfied with Conklin, who has completed 52% of his passes for 716 yards with 5 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
However, James is unhappy with his tailback production. Vince Weathersby is averaging only 3.6 yards a carry. Fullback Aaron Jenkins is averaging 6 yards, though.
James was dissatisfied with his defense at the outset of the season, particularly when San Jose State scored 28 straight points against the Huskies, who barely held on to win, 35-31.
However, he conceded that his defense played better against UCLA and in a 10-0 victory over Arizona State last week.
“We’re still not playing good from a team standpoint, offense, defense and kicking,” he said.
USC is favored by 14 points over Washington. . . . Scott Lockwood will be USC’s starting tailback today, backed up by Calvin Holmes and freshman Mazio Royster. Ricky Ervins, who has a hamstring injury, may play, but Steven Webster (hip) won’t, according to Coach Larry Smith. . . . As a freshman in 1987, Lockwood scored on a 38-yard run against Washington. If Royster plays, USC will have used six tailbacks this season.
Washington defensive tackle Dennis Brown on quarterback Cary Conklin: “He’s such a tough guy. He’ll drop his head with linebackers and safeties and give them a shot. I think he’s going to kill himself one of these days.” . . . Conklin is backed up by redshirt freshman Eric Alozie, an option quarterback who hasn’t thrown a pass this season.
USC’s Brent Parkinson, making a comeback from knee surgery, will start at right offensive tackle for the first time this year. . . . Husky Coach Don James is 1-4 against USC at the Coliseum. . . . USC is idle next Saturday and will resume play against Oregon State at Corvallis Oct. 22. The Trojans get a break in the conference schedule by not playing Washington State, which leads the nation in total offense, averaging 567.4 yards a game.
Smith has been named coach of the West team for the East-West Shrine game Jan. 15 in Stanford Stadium. . . . In keeping with USC’s centennial season, Morley Drury, known as the “Noblest Trojan of Them All,” will be honored at the end of the first quarter of today’s game. He was USC’s first 1,000-yard rusher and ended his career by gaining 180 yards against Washington at the Coliseum in 1927. . . . USC’s players and coaches will visit children at the Los Angeles unit of the Shriners Hospital Monday.