Quarterback Rodney Peete’s best play for unbeaten USC Saturday was probably the play of the game.
If it doesn’t win him the Heisman Trophy, it should.
It was a only a quarterback sneak, and it only gained a yard, but it came at the USC 33-yard line, of all places, where, gambling recklessly, USC Coach Larry Smith shot the moon on fourth and 1 and made it.
Peete’s was a play that graphically illustrated the difference between him and UCLA’s Troy Aikman as college quarterbacks.
Aikman is a great short passer, clearly a Heisman finalist. Peete is a great athlete. Even in the week of his fight against the measles, the Trojan quarterback summoned the strength in the fourth quarter to sneak for that yard.
In a 31-22 game, what good is a yard?
It kept the ball for USC.
In the end in this game, the Trojans won it by keeping the ball away from Aikman for much of the second half, and Peete’s sneak was not only a major weapon in USC’s strategy but a dramatic weapon.
For this wasn’t a true sneak at all. There was nothing there but a solid sheet of Bruins when Peete headed into the line. He had to push off like a running back and slide outside to make the first down.
You see pro running backs do that, but not pro quarterbacks.
UCLA still had a chance after Peete’s run--but not much.
The difference between these passers as Heisman candidates was that Peete made the game’s big plays. Although Aikman made more plays, the trouble with a short-pass offense like UCLA’s is that it’s worthless against a good defense if you can’t keep short-passing the ball into the end zone.
With the Rose Bowl game on the line, Peete led USC to 4 touchdowns and 1 field goal. Aikman led UCLA to 2 touchdowns and 3 field goals.
Peete, playing the whole afternoon despite a week off with the measles, produced at least one big play on each of USC’s touchdown drives, usually on throws to split end Erik Affholter or tight end Paul Green.
Accurate Peete passes to Affholter set up the first 2 touchdowns, and another one to Affholter made it 14-3 at the start of the second quarter.
A third-and-10 pass to Green followed by Peete’s 1-yard touchdown made it 21-16 at halftime.
And in the final period, Peete’s 29-yard first-down strike to Green at the UCLA 8-yard line put UCLA away, setting up the 28-16 touchdown.
Considering that UCLA was very recently No. 1 in the nation, this was Heisman work by the USC quarterback. He earned the trophy.
Aikman, a poised, polished passer came close but lost his best chance when he misfired on all 3 of his long passes, 1 of which was intercepted. Although Aikman doesn’t throw spirals, he has the arm power for the bomb. What the world still doesn’t know about him is whether he has long-pass accuracy or touch.
The time has come to recognize that USC landed one of the nation’s finest coaches when it brought in Larry Smith last year.
In the season that Smith becomes the first Trojan coach to reach the Rose Bowl game in his first two years, his record here is already 18-4.
Even more impressive is Smith’s 7-1 record in his last 8 games against traditional rivals. At Arizona he was 5-0 in his last 5 games against Arizona State.
Against UCLA, Smith is 2-0, and against Notre Dame 0-1.
Though he survived the afternoon’s worst call--a quarterback sneak at the wrong time and place--he has two strong suits as a football leader that may some day help him survive worse than that.
These are his ability to build the game’s fundamentals into his personnel and his ability to motivate the team.
He is the best fundamentalist at USC since Howard Jones and the best motivator of them all except for John Robinson. Indeed, Smith is a composite of these two winners, and, who knows, he may be headed for bigger things than either--if USC’s alumni are alert enough and rich enough to keep him around.
His is, or can be, a better job than most pro coaching jobs.
For this UCLA traditional, Smith filled his game plan with trick plays--special plays that weren’t always easy to see but were always there--in every series.
For one example, Peete’s third down pass to Green, setting up the third touchdown at the UCLA 1-yard line, was thrown behind an unbalanced line with Green positioned at left tackle. When Green looped out--like a halfback on a swing pass--he was wide open.
Peete’s 1-yard touchdown run provided another trick-play example. That time, UCLA’s 2 linebackers were off the line, instead of in it the way most teams play goal-line defense.
Expecting this, Smith sent Peete hurtling behind his center on a quick count--on some kind of automatic signal. No other Trojan moved. And neither did either UCLA linebacker--until too late. It became an easy touchdown.
USC, in other words, didn’t just mow the Bruins down. Smith fooled them, too.
Against Notre Dame next week, USC has a chance to win the national championship the old-fashioned way--by earning it in a series of games against good teams.
In recent years, too many cheese championships have been won by Miami, Penn State and others hammering a couple of tough opponents on otherwise soft schedules.
USC, by contrast, is playing a 1988 schedule that the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. ranks as the most difficult in the land.
How can a team with such opponents be contending for No. 1 so late in the season?
The probable answer is that Smith has developed one of the few complete college football teams of recent years--one that can run the ball with Aaron Emanuel and others, catch it with Affholter and others, run and throw it with Peete, and play defense stylishly and cohesively.
In the UCLA game, what’s more, Smith finally found a kicking game. Two of the Trojans’ four touchdowns were created by their kicking teams.
How good are, say, Emanuel and Affholter?
As a running back, Emanuel can be ranked with the great tailbacks in USC history. He may not be an O.J. Simpson yet, but he isn’t far behind.
Affholter is making a place for himself on the all-time Trojan team. “Everyone talks about my soft hands,” Affholter said. “But catching is just concentrating.
“It’s a God-given ability, and I’ve built on it. Every ball I go for is an opportunity to make a contribution to USC.”
Against such a gang, Aikman and his coach, Terry Donahue, were finally overmatched. The irony of the game is that it was Donahue’s best coached of the year--certainly his most creative--and still he lost.