In the first 13 years of the alliance between the Big Ten and the Pacific Coast Conference, forerunner of the Pacific 10, the Big Ten entry won 12 times. It swept the first six games, from 1947 through 1952, lost the seventh, then won six more.
The only PCC school to cut into that monopoly was USC, and the only Big Ten school to lose was Wisconsin. That was no more than fitting, since the Trojans have won more Rose Bowl games--19--than any other team and the Badgers haven't won any. In fact, the Badgers also broke the Big Ten's second six-game winning streak and have a Rose Bowl record of 0-3.
So, although the 1953 game was hardly one of the most memorable in Rose Bowl annals, the outcome gave it historical significance. And don't be misled by the 7-0 score. The game had a lot more excitement than that suggests.
Before and after USC scored the game's only touchdown, on a 22-yard pass from Rudy Bukich to Al Carmichael, Wisconsin threatened five times and came away empty. Coach Jess Hill's Trojans fought a tenacious battle that finally paid off when a Badger pass into the end zone misfired with a minute and a half to play.
"Give those defensive guys credit," said Carmichael, now 60 and a real estate broker in Palm Desert. "They saved us that day."
Someone once said that statistics are for losers, and so it was in this case. Wisconsin outgained USC, 353 yards to 236, and made 19 first downs to the Trojans' 16. Alan (the Horse) Ameche, the Badger fullback who was to win the Heisman Trophy two seasons later, rushed for 133 yards, 105 more than any Trojan and 85 more than USC's runners gained among them.
Even with all this going for them, the Badgers didn't have a passer to match Bukich or receivers the equal of Carmichael and Tom Nickolff. Nor did they have a set of dogged defenders like USC's Marv Goux, Charlie Ane and George Timberlake, who time and again shackled the Badgers when the USC goal was in peril.
The Trojans scored their touchdown with 8:45 left in the third quarter at the end of a 73-yard drive that was their only concerted advance of the day. Bukich wound up with the outstanding-player award, quite an achievement for a second-stringer who hadn't even been expected to play.
USC used the single-wing in those days, and the heart of its offense was All-American tailback Jim Sears. Bukich was normally Sears' No. 1 backup, but because he was in the coaches' doghouse at the time, Aramis Dandoy presumably had moved ahead of him on the depth chart.
Sears was an outstanding runner, a better-than-average passer and the nation's leading punt returner. Bukich was a superior passer but couldn't run, so he would have been better suited as a quarterback in the T-formation.
Still, Bukich had a big edge over Dandoy in experience, so when Sears was knocked out by a leg injury in the first quarter, Hill turned to Bukich. Rifle Rudy, as he was called because of his tremendously strong arm, responded by completing 12 of 20 passes, including five of six in the winning drive.
Carmichael played wingback, which was tantamount to being a wide receiver in today's offenses, and inevitably was nicknamed Hoagy after the famed songwriter. He has vivid memories of the victory.
First, the touchdown pass:
"I started toward Wisconsin's safety and did a 20-yard hook," Carmichael said. "I caught the ball right at the goal line.
"Rudy threw the ball very hard, so it was almost like a golf ball coming at me. The ball was rising and maybe I misjudged it, because it started toward my numbers and I caught it in my hands throat high. I almost dropped it."
The game in general:
"We had great material, but we hated the antiquated single-wing with an unbalanced line. It was old-style football, and I think we would have been more effective in the T.
"We couldn't move the ball until that one drive we scored on. It seemed like a tug of war, all between the 30s, but (the Badgers) got there more often than we did. The only highlight was a long run (54 yards) by Ameche, who was like a runaway truck. Thank God we had fast backs who ran him down."
"The coaches were down on Rudy. He was very outspoken, kind of a rebel, and he had left the team back in October. He had come back a week later, but that sort of got him off on the wrong foot.
"Four days before the game, one of the coaches said to him, 'Rudy, you're not on offense anymore. You're on defense.' They didn't like his personality and his makeup. I don't think he would have gotten in the game at all if Sears hadn't been hurt."
Carmichael noted that Bukich's lack of mobility for a tailback was accentuated by the fact that a year earlier, the position had been manned by the great Frank Gifford, who went on to a Hall of Fame pro career with the New York Giants and is now on the announcing team of ABC's "Monday Night Football."
"They wanted somebody like Gifford," Carmichael said. "Frank was much more mobile and was both a passer and a runner. Later, he became an excellent receiver. Rudy wasn't born to be a runner; he was born to be a quarterback.
There are many tales of Bukich's passing prowess, and none is taller than one told by Carmichael:
"One day we asked Rudy how far he could throw the ball. He went into the end zone and ran up to the goal line like a javelin thrower. Well, it was incredible. That ball landed in the other end zone.
"Besides throwing so far, he threw so hard that we'd tell him to stop trying to knock us down."
Although he never played regularly at USC, Bukich's arm made him such a good pro prospect that the Rams drafted him in the second round in 1953. He spent 14 seasons in the NFL, and although he was a backup most of the time, he led the league in passing with the Chicago Bears in 1965.
For years, Bukich lived in La Jolla and operated a land development business in Del Mar. Now 59, he is retired and living in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Carmichael, who attended Inglewood and Gardena high schools and Santa Ana Junior Coolege, was drafted ahead of Bukich, by the Green Bay Packers in the first round. He had an eight-year pro career, and in 1956 set a record when he returned a kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown.
"When the kick backed me into the end zone, I told (teammate) Veryl Switzer I was going to run it out," Carmichael said. "Veryl said, 'Don't do it. The coaches will go crazy.' But I got it and just took off. I got hit about five times, but I made all kinds of antics. And would you believe, one coach yelled at me for running it out?"
Surprisingly, Sears, the All-American who attended Inglewood High and El Camino JC, wasn't drafted until the sixth round. The Baltimore Colts took him and traded him to the Cardinals, and he put in five pro seasons, including '60 with the original Los Angeles Chargers of the American Football League.
Sears, 60, now in the car business in Las Vegas, talked about the injury that opened the door for Bukich in the Rose Bowl.
"About four minutes into the game, I had a terrific punt return," Sears said. "The next time Wisconsin punted, the ball went to about the two-yard line, and I decided I wasn't going to let it go out of bounds. I got hit pretty hard, and a couple of guys piled on. My left calf was banged up, and I had to leave the game.
"I went back in for a while, but it was too sore. I finished the game on crutches, although I was able to play in the Hula Bowl."
Before Sears got hurt, he completed three of four passes. And Dandoy completed all three of his, so the Trojans were 18 for 27.
USC mounted its game-winning drive after Bob Hooks had snuffed out one of Wisconsin's many threats by recovering Roy Burks' fumble on the Trojans' 23. Eight plays carried to the Badgers' 22, and on second and one, Bukich and Carmichael teamed up for the touchdown. Sam Tsagalakis kicked the extra point.
Bukich praised his blockers: "Except for one pass, I had all the time I needed to throw. Man oh man, did you see the protection I got?"
Wisconsin Coach Ivy Williamson wasn't convinced that he had lost to a better team, saying: "I think we would have a very good chance if we could meet them again."
USC's Hill wasn't about to indulge in any such speculation. Asked if this had been the Trojans' best game, he said: "When you beat the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl, it has to be."