For a while, it seemed there was a possibility that UCLA and USC would be upset by lower-echelon conference teams from the Northwest Saturday.
The Bruins, the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, were shocked by Washington State, 34-30, at the Rose Bowl.
The Trojans, who are ranked No. 3, were protecting a precarious 20-14 lead over surprising Oregon State early in the fourth quarter.
Then USC surged for 21 points to win, 41-20, and remain unbeaten in front of 31,117 at Parker Stadium.
It was a game that featured the acrobatic catches of USC split end Erik Affholter and the passing of Erik Wilhelm, Oregon State’s left-handed quarterback.
Affholter caught 3 touchdown passes from quarterback Rodney Peete, the last reception resulting from a tipped ball on a 55-yard play that enabled USC to pull away to a comfortable 34-14 advantage.
Wilhelm, the operator of the Beavers’ Air Express offense, threw 62 passes and completed 37 for 406 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also had 3 interceptions, which were damaging.
The Trojans haven’t seen so many balls in the air since Notre Dame’s Joe Theismann set a record for opponents by attempting 58 passes in 1970.
Wilhelm did set a record for a conference game, breaking the mark of 57 set by Washington’s Sonny Sixkiller in 1970 against USC. He also broke his Pacific 10 mark of 35 completions.
But in the end, the Beavers couldn’t hold off the Trojans, who improved to 7-0, their best start since 1975. With UCLA losing, USC is alone in first place in the Pac-10 at 5-0. Oregon State is 3-4-2 and 1-3-1.
Moreover, the Trojans should move to No. 2 in the wire service poll rankings behind Notre Dame next week.
USC Coach Larry Smith said he is too involved with what his team is doing to be concerned with rankings. UCLA and Notre Dame lie ahead for USC on the schedule.
Asked to comment on UCLA’s shocking loss to Washington State, Smith only said: “There are just no days off in the Pac-10.”
Wilhelm had to throw because the Beavers got the message early that they couldn’t successfully run against the Trojans. Oregon State finished with only 64 net yards rushing.
Peete directs a more balanced offense. Nevertheless, he was impressive as a passer by completing 18 of 31 for 243 yards and 3 touchdowns. He had 1 interception. The Trojans took command in the first quarter when Peete threw touchdown passes of 21 and 11 yards to Affholter and were ahead, 17-0, by the time Wilhelm, who was shaky at the start, began to find the range with quick-releasing passes.
His 7-yard pass to flanker Robb Thomas reduced USC’s lead to 17-7 at halftime. And he brought the Beavers within 20-14 midway through the third quarter, setting up a 3-yard scoring pass to split end Lloyd Bailey with a 53-yard pass to Thomas on 3rd and 17 from the Oregon State 38-yard line.
The game turned in the fourth quarter as the teams exchanged turnovers. Peete had an interception, but then linebacker Delmar Chesley made a diving interception of a Wilhelm pass at the Oregon State 39-yard line.
Two plays later, fullback Leroy Holt, who has been bothered by a sprained knee, broke two tackles at the line of scrimmage, burst up the middle and broke two more at the goal line on a powerful 28-yard scoring run.
“It was an option play,” Holt said, “and I had a huge hole that was opened up by (offensive linemen) John Guerrero and Mark Tucker.”
Holt, a junior, had a career-high 102 yards in 14 carries, dragging would-be tacklers with him on several occasions.
On USC’s next possession, Peete lofted a pass to Affholter, who was closely tracked by cornerback David Brannon. Both players went for the ball and got a hand on it, but Affholter ended up with it on the 8-yard line. He didn’t break stride in completing a 55-yard scoring play.
“I just didn’t want him to get an interception,” Affholter said. “When I went up with him, I tried to tip the ball, because he was in front of me and there was no one behind me.”
It was typical Affholter, who makes routine plays out of seemingly difficult situations.
The Trojans soon got another touchdown after nose guard Don Gibson’s recovery of Wilhelm’s fumble.
USC moved 47 yards in 9 plays, and tailback Scott Lockwood scored from the 1-yard line on a option pitch from Peete.
A seemingly tight game had turned into a rout, 41-14, and Oregon State got a touchdown in the last 59 seconds to close out a game that dragged on for 3 hours 35 minutes.
The Trojans had a scare late in the third quarter, when linebacker Brian Tuliau collided with Oregon State tight end Phil Ross and failed to get up.
Play was delayed several minutes while the USC medical staff attended to Tuliau. He was finally carried off the field on a stretcher and was taken to a local hospital.
His injury was later called a cervical sprain, and he was able to join the Trojans on the plane trip home.
“Brian had some tingling in his arms, but, thankfully, the X-rays were negative,” Smith said.
That was a somber moment in the game. There was also a humorous moment in the first quarter when Affholter caught Peete’s 21-yard pass in the end zone.
He had possession of the ball, and so did strong safety Teddy Johnson. They struggled for outright possession, tumbling out of bounds, and players from both teams milled around them.
“Their players were trying to tug the ball away from me, and our players were trying to pull the safety off of me,” Affholter said. “It was a touchdown, because in dual possession, the ball is awarded to the receiver.”
USC flanker John Jackson was in the middle of the melee, and he passed out, according to Affholter. A few minutes earlier, Jackson had become ill on the field and was vomiting. He remained in the game, though.
Before the first quarter ended, Affholter had his second touchdown on an 11-yard, bullet-like pass from Peete.
There was more to come, of course: the rebound that Affholter got away from a surprised OSU cornerback on the 55-yard touchdown play.
“Affy was fantastic,” Smith said.
Said Peete: “He doesn’t amaze me anymore. You expect such plays from him.”
As for USC’s stature as the only unbeaten team in the Pac-10, Peete said the Trojans won’t look past their next two opponents, California and Arizona State, before the climactic regular-season-ending games with UCLA (Nov. 19) and Notre Dame (Nov. 26).
“Cal is a home game (next Saturday), and we always want to play well at home,” he said. “As for Arizona State (Nov. 12 in Tempe), they’ve always been tough for us over the years.”
Oregon State Coach Dave Kragthorpe said he came into the game with a good feeling about pulling off an upset. “And obviously, for three quarters we played very much that way,” he said. “We still have a tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot in the first half. I was very disappointed with the outcome. We just fell apart at the seams in the fourth quarter” . . . The Beavers lost to UCLA, 38-21, on Oct. 8. Asked to compare the Bruins and Trojans, Kragthorpe said: “USC is stronger than UCLA. They are bigger and stronger on the offensive line. They hit harder, and their secondary makes you pay the price. USC is just more physical than UCLA.”
Asked if USC became complacent with a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, Coach Larry Smith said: “I think we were just taking what Oregon State gave us, but we just didn’t try to get more. I don’t think we were failing to play hard.” . . . USC flanker Gary Wellman sprained his left ankle in the first quarter and is expected to be sidelined for 2 weeks. . . . USC wound up with 523 total net yards, 280 by rushing, compared to 470 for Oregon State.