Michigan sneaked past UCLA. USC couldn’t.
Michigan handled Illinois. USC couldn’t.
Michigan blew Ohio State away late. USC did it early.
And neither Michigan nor USC could put Notre Dame away, early or late.
Is there a pattern here? If so, it’s well camouflaged.
Trying to analyze a matchup such as USC-Michigan in Monday’s Rose Bowl through common opponents is risky business, even if all things are equal. In this case, they were not.
USC didn’t have quarterback Todd Marinovich operating with a full playbook against Illinois. Michigan didn’t have its quarterback, Michael Taylor, operating at all for four games.
Two opponents changed considerably from one game to the other. Ohio State started the season poorly, looking inept against USC, but had steadily improved by the time it faced Michigan. UCLA went in the opposite direction.
Add to those variables two other developments, and the regular-season results become even less meaningful: USC will have its first-string defense together for the first time all season with the return of nose guard Don Gibson from a preseason knee injury. And Michigan will be without tailback Tony Boles, out with a knee injury.
“All the games were close except for SC and Ohio State,” Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler said. “So you really can’t make a comparison.”
Still, for whatever insight might be gleaned, here’s a look at four common opponents of USC and Michigan.
This was USC’s opener. Marinovich, a redshirt freshman, had been given the reins of the offense only 10 days earlier when the projected starter, Pat O’Hara, went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Trojan Coach Larry Smith practically sent Marinovich out there with one arm tied behind him. His passing arm.
Trying to take the pressure off his quarterback, Smith attempted to win with defense and the running game. Marinovich was limited to a short-passing game, throwing long only twice, on the last two futile plays of the game.
Illinois won, 14-13.
Michigan ran over Illinois in its ninth game, rushing for 266 yards in a 24-10 victory. The leading ballcarrier for the Wolverines that day was Boles, with 115 yards in nine carries.
Illinois Coach John Mackovic: “I don’t know if there’s a favorite. USC has a great defense. You can’t just run. You have to balance the offense to move the ball on them. But they have a great pass defense, too, so it’s hard to score on them.
“When we played USC, Todd Marinovich was very much under wraps. People tell me he has made great improvement and is doing very well. They need him to make the key plays (in the Rose Bowl) or they will have trouble moving the ball. Michigan’s Michael Taylor was the most underrated quarterback of anybody we played.
“Michigan plays well in big games. This is Bo’s last game, so I think there will be a lot of emotion. But if you look at USC, they have lost the last two Rose Bowls, so I’m not sure the emotion will be just on Michigan’s side.
“Larry and I worked together and have been friends for a long time, but I’m going to pull for Michigan, this being Bo’s last game. As Bo says, Larry will be around to win a lot more. But then, that’s what Bo said about me before they beat us.”
This was the most important game of the year for Marinovich and, perhaps, the Trojans. After losing to Illinois and beating up Utah State, a school that didn’t belong on the USC schedule in the first place, the Trojans struggled early against Ohio State.
Trailing, 3-0, in the second quarter, USC temporarily lost Marinovich when a Buckeye lineman fell on him, hurting the wrist on his throwing hand. Backup quarterback Shane Foley came in and threw a touchdown pass.
Suddenly, Marinovich had more to worry about than just the game. Like his job.
He ignored the pain in his wrist, told Smith he was fine and came back to throw four touchdown passes, including an 87-yarder to John Jackson, longest in Trojan history, to lead USC to one of its most lopsided wins of the year, 42-3.
The Buckeyes split their first four games, then recovered to win six in a row, setting up a Rose Bowl showdown with Michigan, in their regular-season finale.
Heavy favorites, the Wolverines led, 14-3, at the half, but Ohio State came back to within 21-18 in the fourth quarter.
Michigan finally punched itself a return ticket to Pasadena with two blocked kicks and two interceptions by cornerback Todd Plate, holding back the Buckeyes to win, 28-18.
Ohio State Coach John Cooper: “The strength of both teams is defense. I think it will be difficult for either to score points on the other based on what I saw. We played both on the road, where they are tough to play. Todd Marinovich had a great day when they played us. For Michigan, it was their great running backs, Leroy Hoard and Jarrod Bunch. They both have sound kicking games. I couldn’t guess on a winner. It will be the team that gets the breaks and the turnovers. The key is, you can’t turn the ball over against either team and expect to win.
“I don’t think that Bo’s leaving is going to be a factor. The team always played hard. They are not going to play harder just because he’s leaving. It would be a great going-away present, but you can only play so hard. It should be very emotional, though. The fact that Michigan won last year should give USC more incentive. But you really don’t need anything to get fired up for the Rose Bowl. It’s the granddaddy of them all. The excitement I felt when I was coaching Arizona State (in the 1987 game) remains unsurpassed. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
In both cases, hopes for a national championship were probably crushed by the feet of Notre Dame’s Raghib (Rocket) Ismail.
His two kickoff returns, for 89 and 92 yards, were the difference in Michigan’s opener as the Irish prevailed, 24-19. The Wolverines haven’t lost since.
Against USC at South Bend, the Rocket fizzled until the fourth quarter, when he caught a 40-yard pass to set up the winning touchdown in a 28-24 Trojan loss, USC’s only other defeat of the season.
The player who threw the pass to Ismail, quarterback Tony Rice, was the star, leading a rushing attack that piled up 266 yards against the nation’s leading defense against the run. Before that, the Trojans had not given up a rushing touchdown all season.
The Irish won both games on the ground. Against Michigan, Notre Dame rushed for 213 yards, but its air attack was almost nonexistent. Rice completed one of two passes for six yards. Against the Trojans, he completed five of 16. Aside from the big 40-yarder to Ismail, he gained only 51 yards through the air.
Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz--"You’re looking at two teams that are amazingly similar. They both run it well and can throw it. Marinovich and Taylor are both great quarterbacks. You’ve got two proven coaches and two excellent secondaries.
“I think the psychological advantage was with USC until Bo resigned. Now, I think the psychological shift is to Michigan’s side.”
Schembechler is under no illusions about what happened against the Bruins.
“UCLA beat us,” he said flatly, “but the last 10 minutes, we got a little rush on and were able to pull the game out.”
It wasn’t quite that simple. The Bruins led, 23-15, with 5:42 to play. Michigan scored, kicker J.D. Carlson came up with a perfect on-side kick and teammate Vada Murray came up with the ball. Carlson’s 24-yard field goal made the final score 24-23.
When that ball flew through the uprights, each team was set on an irreversible course.
The Wolverines, coming off the loss to Notre Dame, picked up the momentum that has pushed them through the rest of the season unbeaten. UCLA went into tailspin from which it never recovered.
By season’s end, all that was left for the 3-7 Bruins was a possible face-saving victory over their cross-town rivals. USC, assured of its third consecutive Rose Bowl berth, was playing for civic pride.
The Trojans came out firing passes as if they were in a two-minute drill, driving down the field to score.
They weren’t heard from again.
Smith’s offense turned conservative and ineffective.
For the first time, Marinovich looked like a redshirt freshman, throwing three interceptions and a bad pitch. Fullback Leroy Holt, who hadn’t fumbled in his entire career, did so in the closing minutes with his team driving for the possible winning score.
It was the Bruins who had the final shot at winning, but came up inches short when kicker Alfredo Velasco’s 54-yard field-goal attempt hit the crossbar. The game ended in a 10-10 tie.
UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said he was too busy recruiting to comment for this story.