For the first time in four seasons under Coach Larry Smith, USC failed to qualify for the Rose Bowl. But the Trojans (8-3-1) will play a Big Ten opponent today in the John Hancock Bowl.
A pretty good one, too.
Michigan State (7-3-1) shared the Big Ten championship with Iowa, Michigan and Illinois, winning its last five games.
“Over the last four or five games of the season, they (the Spartans) were perhaps the most efficient team in the country,” said Smith, who on Sunday named Todd Marinovich as his starting quarterback.
Only 12 points separated Michigan State from an unbeaten and untied season. The Spartans tied Syracuse in their opener and lost by a point to Notre Dame, by two points to Illinois and by five points to Iowa.
As they have been for most of their eight seasons under Coach George Perles, a former Pittsburgh Steeler assistant who helped design the “Steel Curtain” defense of the 1970s, the Spartans are a big, physical team, featuring a punishing ground game and an unforgiving defense.
Challenging that defense will be Marinovich, who had been getting most of the practice time, although earlier in the week Smith said he didn’t have “the slightest idea” who would start.
If the game dictates, Smith said Sunday, he would also like to use backup quarterbacks Shane Foley, Pat O’Hara and Reggie Perry.
While USC is the more balanced of the teams, relying almost equally on the passing of Marinovich and the running of tailback Mazio Royster, Michigan State is more ground-oriented.
The Spartans led the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 253.9 yards and more than three touchdowns a game on the ground.
They feature two 1,000-yard rushers in tailbacks Tico Duckett and Hyland Hickson. Duckett and Hickson need six yards today to unseat Ohio State’s Archie Griffin and Pete Johnson, who combined for 2,509 yards in 1975, as the most productive rushing tandem in Big Ten history.
“There are thinking games and non-thinking games, and this one’s more of a non-thinking game,” USC linebacker Scott Ross said last week. “It’s more of a reaction game. They just basically set it up and run at you. You just watch the ball carrier and go.”
Duckett, a sophomore, led the Big Ten in rushing with 1,376 yards, averaging 5.5 per carry and scoring 11 touchdowns. He was chosen as offensive player of the year in the conference in a vote of the media.
“If we gave the ball to Tico more, instead of having him split time with Hickson,” Perles said, “Tico would probably lead the nation in about every category.”
Hickson, a senior from Dillard High in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the same school that produced former Michigan State tailback Lorenzo White, ran for 1,128 yards and scored 14 touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
He is more of a power runner than Duckett, who is more elusive.
Senior quarterback Dan Enos completed 63.1% of his 203 passes, but threw 10 interceptions and only three touchdown passes, none to a wide receiver.
Michigan State scored 34 of its 37 touchdowns on the ground behind an offensive line that features Jim Johnson, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound junior tackle, and Eric Moten, a 6-3, 300-pound senior guard who could be a first-round NFL draft pick, Perles said.
Tight end Duane Young caught only 12 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown, but Perles described him as “the best blocking tight end in the Big Ten and maybe in all of college football.”
Defensively, Michigan State ranked third in the Big Ten against the run and second overall, giving up 113.2 yards a game on the ground and 313.1 overall.
Its leaders are outside linebackers Carlos Jenkins and Dixon Edwards.
Middle linebacker Chuck Bullough, who made a team-high 148 tackles, and tackle Bobby Wilson also were all-Big Ten picks.
Senior Frank Griffin, who was sidelined for the last seven games of the regular season after undergoing knee surgery, will start at tight end for USC. . . . Senior Gene Fruge, who missed USC’s last four games because of a stress fracture in his right leg, will start at nose guard. . . . Coach Larry Smith said that Shane Foley would be the first quarterback off the bench. . . . USC and Michigan State, which drew 103,847 to the Rose Bowl in 1988, will attract about half as many today. A crowd of about 50,000 is expected in the Sun Bowl, which has a listed capacity of 52,200. . . . USC sold only about 1,000 tickets.
Only the Rose Bowl is older than the John Hancock Bowl, which started in 1935 and was known as the Sun Bowl until last year.
This will be USC’s 34th bowl appearance, its seventh outside the Rose Bowl. . . . The Trojans are 22-11 in bowl games, but have won only twice in their last seven bowl appearances and are 0-3 outside the Rose Bowl since 1977. . . . Michigan State is 4-5 in bowl games. . . . USC has won 20 of its last 24 games against Big Ten opponents, but lost twice to Michigan State in Coach Larry Smith’s first season--27-13 at East Lansing, Mich., in its 1987 opener and again in the 1988 Rose Bowl. . . . Nine current Trojans played against Michigan State in the 1988 Rose Bowl, including linebacker Scott Ross, who led USC with 13 tackles.