USC scored touchdowns the first four times it had the ball against Utah, then took the rest of Thursday night off and staggered to the season’s finish line with a 28-21 victory in the Freedom Bowl.
The victory, achieved before 37,203 at Anaheim Stadium, ended a two-game Anaheim Stadium losing streak for USC. But for two quarters Wednesday night, it seemed like a year-old Orange County nightmare was rising up from the past--USC’s crushing 24-7 loss to Fresno State in Anaheim a year ago.
After USC quarterback Rob Johnson and his main target, Johnnie Morton, had forged a seemingly effortless 28-0 lead, it seemed as if the Trojans were headed for a 50-point night.
But there they were, hanging on in the final minute, punching out short running plays to kill the clock. The Trojans hung on, posting an 8-5 season in the first year of Coach John Robinson’s return to USC.
Utah’s quarterback, Mike McCoy, who came into the game on the heels of three consecutive 400-yard games, came up a touchdown short. Utah (7-6), trailing, 28-13, late in the fourth quarter, drove 73 yards in seven plays and scored on a one-yard run by Keith Williams.
Then McCoy, operating out of a split formation, passed for a two-point conversion to Jamal Anderson to narrow the score to 28-21 with 3:56 to play.
With its once fat lead diminished, USC seemed to be looking at disaster against the Utes.
But the Trojans, for the first time since early in the second quarter, generated offense when they needed it most.
A Johnson-to-Morton pass on third and five at USC’s 33 gave the Trojans a first down at their 45. Then, freshman tailback Shawn Walters, on a sweep left, gained 19 yards to the Utah 36 with 2:24 left.
Walters then ran the ball to Utah’s 26 for another first down with 1:30 to play.
USC ran out of downs but used up most of the clock. When McCoy got the ball again, only eight seconds remained and he threw a Hail Mary that USC’s Johnny Herpin intercepted.
Johnson, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior who USC hopes will be a Heisman Trophy candidate next season, looked every bit the part on the team’s first four possessions. And Morton, the 6-foot, 185-pound senior, looked every bit an NFL first-round draft choice.
Johnson completed 30 of 44 passes for 345 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception. McCoy was 23 of 40 for 286 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.
Morton caught 10 passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns.
Most of those statistics were logged in the first quarter.
So what happened after that?
“We went flat,” Robinson said. “We just can’t dominate a game with a running attack, and that’s a big recruiting priority for us after tonight.”
And Utah? Ute Coach Ron McBride was asked about his halftime message.
“What did I say to them? I chewed their butts,” he said.
With 8:45 left in the first quarter, Morton had tied a Freedom Bowl record with two touchdown catches.
Here’s how USC’s first four series went:
--Johnson found Morton in the end zone on the first possession and, on a 31-yard play, Morton leaped above three defenders for the first touchdown.
--Johnson found him in the end zone again on the next drive, hitting him with a nine-yard pass. Earlier, Morton made a leaping catch on a 14-yard play to put the Trojans at the Utah 11.
--Johnson, on third and 20 from USC’s 47, hit Ken Grace at the seven. Tailback David Dotson, behind Tony Boselli, took it in from the two.
--It became 28-0 early in the second quarter when Johnson and tight end Johnny McWilliams connected on a five-yard play.
USC’s kicker, Cole Ford, aided USC greatly in the first quarter with booming end zone kickoffs that kept Utah in poor field position while the Trojans were scoring on every possession.
Utah burned USC defensive back Micah Phillips twice to get back to 28-13. First, receiver Henry Lusk flattened Phillips on a 59-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Then 245-pound Jamal Anderson pancaked Phillips, on his way to a 34-yard scoring run.
Next came Utah’s fourth-quarter drive and two-point conversion, forcing USC’s make-or-break drive in the closing minutes.
Only once was Utah able to achieve good field position on its own in the first half, and that came after Henry Lusk returned a John Stonehouse punt from the end zone 19 yards to USC’s 23.
But Utah, trailing 28-0 at the time, still couldn’t score, not even after reaching the Trojans’ one. USC put together a goal-line stand featuring big plays by Shannon Jones, and a big pass rush on fourth and goal that caused McCoy to throw wildly out of the end zone.
Utah ended a five-play Trojan drive late in the second quarter when linebacker Mark Rexford intercepted Johnson at the USC 35. He returned it 22 yards to the Trojan 22, but USC ended the threat with a third-and-11 sack of McCoy, forcing a punt.
Johnson was 17 for 25 by halftime, for 255 yards and three touchdowns. Morton had seven catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns at the half.
Senior cornerback Jason Sehorn, nursing an injured shoulder, made a leaping interception in the end zone of a McCoy pass with 35 seconds to play in the half. It was his seventh interception this season.