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COLLEGE FOOTBALL ’94 / SEASON PREVIEWS : Bad Pass : With UCLA Interception Behind Him, USC’s Johnson Makes Victory His Goal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When USC lost out in the Rose Bowl race Nov. 20, it happened in a way few could have imagined.

Rob Johnson, for 12 games, had been the most accurate passer in Pacific 10 Conference history, having thrown only four interceptions in more than 400 attempts. That Johnson would throw a game-deciding interception--and from the two-yard line at that--didn’t make much sense.

But he did. UCLA won, 27-21, and earned the Rose Bowl date.

And so it was, late that night in a USC neighborhood apartment, Johnson’s teammates gathered to console him, to share his pain.

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There was some beer-drinking. There were some tears. And all there did share the pain.

“I told him that night--and I still feel this way--that part of me is still on the two-yard line at the Coliseum,” said Tony Boselli, Johnson’s roommate and an All-American offensive tackle.

USC, trailing by 27-21, reached UCLA’s three-yard line with 1 minute 16 seconds left on pass plays by Johnson that covered 33 and 43 yards. He had already thrown for two touchdowns and 307 yards.

As he took his team to the line of scrimmage on first and goal, he was, by a wide margin, the leading passer in USC single-season history, with 3,630 yards.

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Two running plays by tailback Shawn Walters to the left side netted only a yard.

Then, a pass was called, a short toss to tight end Tyler Cashman. But a lurking UCLA safety, Marvin Goodwin, intercepted. UCLA ran out the clock and went to the Rose Bowl. USC went to Anaheim to play Utah in the Freedom Bowl.

Afterward, Johnson could only say of Goodwin, “I never saw him.”

“He really took it hard,” Boselli said. “But we all did. I kept telling Rob, ‘Hey, if we’d blocked for Shawn, he’d have scored and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.’ But we knew how he felt. Nothing seemed to help.

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“We kind of felt sorry for ourselves at first, then we got . . . off. And the more beer we drank, the more . . . off we got.

“No one’s really gotten over it. I know I haven’t.”

Jeremy Hogue, a guard, remembers Johnson that night the way everyone else does who was with him--disconsolate.

“When it was just the two of us talking, I told him if it wasn’t for those two long pass plays he made, we wouldn’t even have been down there, in a position to win.

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“But it was one of those situations where nothing you could say to him would help him. And it’s because he’s a winner. He told me he’d rather play a horrible game and win than have great stats and lose. He said he’d give back anything he’s ever done in football to have that play back.”

Mike Riley, the Trojans’ offensive coordinator, later viewed the UCLA-USC finish as supreme irony.

“Here’s a guy who has a phenomenal year--he throws virtually no interceptions--and we go down on a high-percentage pass play in the final drive of the (regular) season.

“It was hard, and he took it hard. He got emotional, right after the game. (The coaching staff) tried to take some of the heat off him by telling him that the play developed too slowly, that we hadn’t practiced it enough.

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“That was all true, but it didn’t help. This is a young team, and we’ll all learn from that day.”

In the aftermath, Johnson, a junior then, told his teammates he would be back. But he and his father, Bob Johnson, who was his high school coach, gave some thought to leaving USC early for the NFL draft.

At one point, Johnson said, his father told him, “ ‘Look, if you’re thinking about coming out, you’d better make a decision--there’s only two weeks left until you have to declare.’

“We sat down and talked about the positives and negatives, and we couldn’t think of too many positives,” the quarterback said.

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“The negatives were, I’d be no better than the third quarterback taken--behind Heath Shuler and Trent Dilfer--and that probably meant the second round.

“But the main thing was, I want to take this team to the Rose Bowl.”

Rob Garland Johnson is 21, 6 feet 4, 220 pounds and walks with a swagger.

Said Boselli: “I remember the first day I saw him on campus, four years ago. He was cocky and arrogant, but I mean that in a good way--the way you want your quarterback to be. He knew he was going to be a prominent player here from Day 1.”

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With Johnson’s record-breaking 1993 in the bank and what seems to be a solid football team in place for this season, USC’s sports publicity office has cranked up a campaign for a fifth USC Heisman Trophy.

Johnson says he’s a bit embarrassed by summertime Heisman talk, even before the leaves have turned at Notre Dame.

The line from Johnson and his teammates goes like this: “If we have a great season, if we go to the Rose Bowl, that stuff will take care of itself.”

One thing’s for sure. If Johnson does have a Heisman season, the quarterback’s father isn’t going to miss a thing. He has been the football coach at El Toro High the last 12 years but is taking this season off so he can attend every USC game.

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And this father-coach, who can be his son’s toughest critic, tells all that those dwelling on awards and statistics aren’t really seeing his son.

“Rob couldn’t care less if he throws 15 or 35 passes a game,” he said.

“All he wants is the W, nothing else. I remember he told me (Notre Dame quarterback) Rick Mirer came up to him in the Coliseum tunnel after the 1992 game (won by Notre Dame, 31-23), and congratulated him on a fine game.

“Rob told him, ‘Thanks, but you got the W. I’d rather have that.’ ”

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Said Coach John Robinson: “If Rob gets the Heisman, that would be fabulous. But if he doesn’t, life goes on. I love being around the guy, because he loves to play so much. And he’ll play another 15 years, after he leaves here.”

Nearly every Pac-10 team has a returning quarterback this season, and two of them played on the same high school team, coached by Bob Johnson.

Steve Stenstrom, in his 1989 senior season at quarterback for El Toro, threw 65 completions to his wide receiver, Johnson, who got the QB job the next year, after Stenstrom had left for Stanford.

Rob Johnson was one of the nation’s most widely recruited quarterbacks in 1991. In his travels that spring, he visited Notre Dame, with his El Toro teammate, Hogue, now a USC offensive lineman.

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Hogue is USC’s No. 1 Johnson story teller, and this one has to do with a 1991 afternoon when a Notre Dame graduate assistant coach, name forgotten, was driving Johnson and Hogue around the Notre Dame campus.

Recalled Hogue: “Rob is not a religious guy, and he was pretty young then . . . and he looks up at the woman depicted on the top of the Golden Dome (it’s the Virgin Mary), and says, ‘Who’s the chick on the dome?’

“The coach turned around, and he didn’t think it was funny, and I don’t think Rob intended it to be funny. The coach said, ‘Don’t ever let Coach (Lou) Holtz hear you say that.’ ”

Johnson, during periods of confinement on airplanes or buses, loves to get something going, Hogue says.

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“He loves to argue. He’ll argue about anything. One time on a bus ride last year, he started an argument over whether or not a luge has a brake. I mean, really dumb stuff.

“He’s started arguments over who’s better, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. Or what the Knicks would be like with Shaquille O’Neal, or the Orlando Magic with Patrick Ewing.”

Hogue, on Johnson and the Heisman: “He knows we all want it for him. But we know he wants a national championship more than the Heisman, and that’s why we want the Heisman for him.

“I’ve known him since the eighth grade. He’s a natural leader, by example. He’s great at picking up a guy who’s just screwed up, telling him quietly to just forget it. And he’s really loose and funny in the meetings.”

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That pretty much describes the Johnson family, loose and funny. Bob Johnson, his wife, Debbie, and Rob’s older brother, Bret, visited the USC training camp the other day, and the family had lunch together.

There were maybe 50 football players eating, but the Johnson family table was the noisiest as they laughed, needled and teased one another.

“It was a treat,” Bob Johnson said. “I can’t tell you when the last time was we were all together, eating at the same table.”

Bret, also a quarterback, was recently cut by the Atlanta Falcons and spent last season in the Canadian Football League.

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Riley was asked how you coach a quarterback who completed 68.6% of his passes last year and accumulated 3,630 yards, nearly a thousand yards more than any other Trojan quarterback in a season.

“He’s pretty much a polished guy at his position, but we do want to cut down on his sacks (about 40 last year), to get him to throw the ball away when a play has fallen apart,” Riley said.

Johnson said, “I want every play to work, and I’m back there ready to pass, thinking positive thoughts. I’m thinking, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!’ and the play falls apart and I get sacked.

“I need to get that split-second decision down, where I’m thinking, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! No! ' And throw it away.”

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Two Pac-10 coaches, Robinson and Washington’s Jim Lambright, say Johnson can be a more effective quarterback with a better USC running game. Returning tailback Walters was the conference’s No. 8 rusher last year.

“The best thing I can do for Rob is to give him a running game that will take the heat off him,” Robinson said.

Said Lambright: “If SC’s run game is significantly improved this year, that means Johnson would become one-third more effective than he was last year.”

Walters will be joined by three promising newcomers at running back--Leonard Green, Delon Washington and Rodney Sermons.

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Johnson threw an average of 34.5 passes a game in USC’s 8-5 season a year ago. Riley would like to see fewer.

“I think 25 to 28 passes would be an optimum number for Rob,” he said.

“We want to continue throwing to our tight ends a lot, as well as our wide receivers. We hope our tailbacks can allow us to do that.”

Whatever happens, Johnson’s numbers figure to be impressive because, Riley says, he is phenomenally accurate.

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“Rob could make a living in the circus, throwing footballs through a swinging tire--he’d never miss,” Riley said.

USC Passing Leaders

Player Att. Comp. Int. Yards TD 1. Rodney Peete 1,081 630 42 8,225 54 2. Rob Johnson 770 490 22 5,973 43 3. Todd Marinovich 674 415 25 5,001 29 4. Sean Salisbury 602 346 19 4,481 25 5. Paul McDonald 501 299 13 4,138 37 6. Jimmie Jones 604 298 25 4,092 30 7. Pat Haden 468 241 25 3,288 33 8. Steve Sogge 370 201 17 2,542 16 9. Jim Powers 348 186 23 2,329 19 10. Rob Hertel 321 176 21 2,812 28


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