This time, USC had it rigged, as rigged as a college bowl game can be.
Fresno State was nowhere in the vicinity.
Utah, the fourth-place team from the not-prestigious-enough WAC (adjectives provided by USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett), was thrown to the Trojans instead.
Utah arrived with most of its starting secondary either in stitches or in street clothes--down two cornerbacks, one safety and one nickel back--and this was a secondary that was allowing nearly 31 points a game in the best of times.
USC was spotted 28 points and told, “You only have to protect that lead for 43 minutes.”
And still, after all that, the Freedom Bowl nearly reached up and bit the Trojans in the hip pads again.
From 28-0 to 28-21 and running for its self-dignity, USC had the alums reeling in their seats one more time--or at least those willing to brave 64-degree weather in north Orange County--before finally taking the no-win out of a proposition known as the Freedom Bowl, ancient burial ground of the Larry Smith Trojan era.
At last, USC has nothing more to fear from the Freedom Bowl. Unless it finishes third in the Pac-10 again next year.
If Freedom Bowl IX, a 24-7 debacle against Fresno State, was the most depressing moment in Trojan football history, Freedom Bowl X was merely a nervous breakdown, with Utah quarterback Mike McCoy coming very, very close to reprising all those Trent Dilfer nightmares that have been ruining Trojan sleep patterns the last 12 months.
“This was not going to be a replay of last year,” USC Coach John Robinson said, and for two quarters, his players had seemed to understand the message. The Trojans scored on their first four possessions, with Rob Johnson slicing up Utah’s underaged defensive backs with a passion and a fury that hadn’t been seen at Anaheim Stadium since . . . well, last Sunday’s Ram game.
Johnson to Johnnie Morton, across the middle, with three Utes spinning in the dust--32-yard touchdown.
Johnson to Morton again, left to right through the Utah secondary, piece of cake--nine-yard touchdown.
Johnson to tight end Brad Banta, open alone in the middle of the end zone--two-yard touchdown.
Throw in a leaping two-yard scoring dive by backup tailback David Dotson and the Trojans were up, 28-0, with 13:34 still to play in the second quarter and Utah searching in vain for the closest exit.
Know this about Utah’s pass defense: In the best of health, it spends a lot of time studying the backs of opposing wide receivers as they run wind sprints down the sideline. As a warmup for the Freedom Bowl, the Backpedalin’ Utes gave up 41 points against San Diego State and Hawaii, 24 against Air Force and 31 against BYU.
In that BYU game, Utah yielded 501 yards.
Utah won, 34-31, by rolling up 632 yards of its own.
Against the second string, Johnson threw for 182 yards in the first quarter and had three touchdown passes in the first 17 minutes, and all of the Freedom Bowl records set by Iowa’s Chuck Long (six scoring passes, 461 passing yards) seemed ready to go tumbling down.
But Utah was able to crawl off the field at halftime, take refuge in its locker room and hopefully hear some words of encouragement from Coach Ron McBride.
“I chewed their butts,” McBride said.
Then the Utes went back on the field and did their best to do the same to USC.
Either that or Fresno State sneaked through the back door and swapped uniforms with the Utes.
In one bold stroke, wide receiver Henry Lusk snapped Utah out of its willies--you know how those Freedom Bowl jitters can floor a team--with a scintillating catch-cutback-and-run-like-mad-the- other-way maneuver that had half of USC’s defense heading east and Lusk due west and down the sideline, 59 yards for a touchdown.
Four minutes later, Utah was in the end zone again, after another big play--tailback Jamal Anderson on a 34-yard burst through the middle of the Trojan line and over the body of Trojan safety Micah Phillips.
Suddenly, it was 28-13, with Utah outgaining USC, 137-4, in the third quarter. And when Utah tailback Keith Williams scored from one yard out with 3:56 remaining, that sinking feeling called Freedom was rumbling in Trojan stomachs again.
It took an older, wiser Johnson to settle his teammates and lead them on one last calm, collected, clock-eating drive. Twice, Johnson was faced with critical third-down plays. Both times he delivered.
USC held the ball . . . and held it . . . and held it, not letting go until the Trojans had reached the Utah 22 and eight seconds remained on the clock.
Finally, Anaheim Stadium and the Freedom Bowl had been conquered.
“We had a great time,” Robinson insisted.
“It was lots of fun.”
Then he and his players hopped on the bus and squealed out the parking lot, hoping to never return.