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Trojans Hoping to Avoid a Repeat : Freedom Bowl: Last year’s loss to Fresno State still lingers as USC prepares to play Utah.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

USC aspires to shake off a year-old nightmare tonight and hand Coach John Robinson an eight-victory season in the first year of his second term.

In the Freedom Bowl game at Anaheim Stadium, the Trojans (7-5) will meet defensively porous but offensively prodigious Utah (7-5), a Western Athletic Conference team bent on presenting USC with Nightmare II.

Nightmare I still lives.

It was on Dec. 29, 1992. Before 50,745--half of them Fresno partisans--at Anaheim, the Trojans lost to Fresno State, 24-7.

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Within days, coach Larry Smith was gone, replaced by Robinson.

What Fresno State, with the nation’s 98th-ranked defense, did to USC that night lingers on. Eight months later, the Trojans returned to Anaheim for their 1993 opener and lost to North Carolina, 31-9.

USC began shakily under the 58-year-old Robinson, losing three of its first five games. But after losing at Notre Dame, the Trojans won their next three Pacific 10 Conference games.

On Nov. 20, with 50 seconds to play and USC on UCLA’s three-yard line, the Trojans were perhaps a play away from the Rose Bowl. But quarterback Rob Johnson threw a third-down interception, and they were rerouted back to Anaheim.

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Utah, under Coach Ron McBride, was 2-4 after six weeks, but won five of its last six games. Unlike USC, Utah won its season-ending game against an old rival, Brigham Young, when Chris Yergensen kicked a final-minute, 55-yard field goal.

The 34-31 victory was the Utes’ first at Provo in 22 years.

Also in contrast to the Trojans, the Utes are delighted to be in the Freedom Bowl, or any bowl game. They were in the Copper Bowl last year, their first bowl appearance since 1964.

“This is a very big deal for us,” McBride said. “We don’t get to do this very often.”

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USC’s reluctance to playing in the Freedom Bowl a second year in a row reached all the way to the university’s board of trustees. Within an hour of the loss to UCLA, Garrett said the Trojans would not go back to Anaheim.

But they did, as mandated by a contract between Freedom Bowl officials and the Pac-10, and a crowd of about 40,000 is expected to watch USC play in what could be the last game of the conference’s affiliation with the Freedom Bowl. Next season is an option year for the conference.

McBride, 54, was a star offensive lineman at South Gate High in the 1950s and was an offensive line coach for 27 years at places such as Long Beach State, UC Riverside, San Jose State and Utah. He needs no introductions to Trojan stars Johnson and wide receiver Johnnie Morton.

“I saw those guys play in high school, during a lot of recruiting trips to Southern California,” McBride said. “I knew it was only a matter of time before they’d be outstanding major college players.”

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McBride’s top gun is junior quarterback Mike McCoy, who transferred to Utah when Long Beach State dropped football in 1991.

McCoy, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior, passed for more than 400 yards in each of his last three games and averaged 407 yards passing in his last six.

He completed 64.2% of his passes for 3,860 yards and 21 touchdowns.

USC’s Johnson, also a junior, finished the regular season with a 68.6% completion figure, 3,285 yards and 26 touchdowns.

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Johnson’s prime target is Morton, who makes his final collegiate appearance tonight. Fast and acrobatic, the 6-foot, 185-pound Morton is the all-time Trojan receptions leader with 191, and his 3,054 yards receiving is a Pac-10 record.

McCoy spread his passes around. Four Ute receivers caught 41 or more passes--Bryan Rowley had 55, Deron Claiborne and Henry Lusk 42 each and Greg Hooks 41.

For USC, Morton caught 78, Deon Strother 51, Ken Grace 32, Brad Banta 28 and Ed Hervey 21. “SC’s pass offense is a real challenge to us,” McBride said. “In the WAC, we see every possible variety of how to throw the football. We’ve seen everything. And SC has a very good package, a good concept of how they want to move the ball.”

Don Lindsey, USC’s defensive coordinator, said a major Utah threat is expected from 245-pound fullback Jamal Anderson, who averages 5.7 yards a carry.

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The Utes, who nine times gave up 28 or more points, outscored opponents, 369-368. USC had a 320-231 scoring edge over its foes.


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