THE RIVALRY: Saturday at the Coliseum, 12:30 p.m. : Shootout Was Better Than OK : Bruins Were Unable to Break Up Marinovich’s Confidence Game
With 16 seconds left in one of the great games of the USC-UCLA football rivalry, redshirt freshman Johnnie Morton could not believe his quarterback’s panache.
Morton, now a Detroit Lion receiver, nervously set up at the 23-yard line opposite Bruin defensive back Dion Lambert with USC trailing, 42-38, and perhaps one last chance to turn the Trojans’ fortunes in 1990. He was told the ball was probably coming his way.
But as Todd Marinovich walked to the line of scrimmage he looked at Lambert and pointed.
“I said to myself, ‘This guy is crazy,’ ” Morton said.
Crazy, perhaps. Confident, certainly.
Marinovich said after the game that Lambert knew what was coming.
“He shook his head [as if to say], ‘No, you’re not going to get it,’ ” Marinovich said.
But there was little the Bruin secondary could do to stop Marinovich, who completed a 23-yard touchdown pass to Morton that gave USC a 45-42 victory.
In a dramatic game of one-upmanship, Marinovich outdueled UCLA’s Tommy Maddox in a fourth quarter that left 98,088 breathless that late November day in the Rose Bowl.
Marinovich never saw Morton leap to make the catch in the left corner of the end zone.
And he never knew what hit him, although it was linebacker Roman Phifer.
Marinovich was lucky to release the ball.
Center Craig Gibson got a hand on Phifer at the last moment, giving Marinovich enough time to make a strong throw.
"[But] I got my clock cleaned,” said Marinovich, who suffered a serious knee injury with the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers that aborted a comeback last summer.
On his back, Marinovich tried to gauge the crowd reaction. But with allegiances split, he couldn’t tell what happened until he saw a sea of red helmets piling atop Morton.
Marinovich also never saw Morton’s perfect post-corner pattern. As the receiver made his cut, Lambert slipped and safety Michael Williams was unable to prevent the play.
“That was my favorite route since I was a junior All-American,” said Marinovich, who plays rhythm guitar in a rock band while rehabilitating his knee. “That was my best pass since I was 9. You really can’t stop it.”
UCLA could not stop Marinovich in the fateful fourth quarter. On USC’s last two possessions, both ending with touchdown passes to Morton, he completed six of eight passes for 110 yards. He had thrown for 105 yards in the first 3 1/2 quarters.
His totals did not match those of Maddox, who completed 26 of 40 passes for a school-record 409 yards and three touchdowns, two in the fourth quarter.
But it hardly mattered.
“I’m just glad I don’t have to talk about a game I played well in but we lost,” Marinovich said at his Dana Point home.
The game turned out to be Marinovich’s last glorious moment at USC. The next week, the Trojans fell to Notre Dame, 10-6, before 91,639 at the Coliseum, and then were embarrassed by Michigan State, 17-16, in the John Hancock Bowl in El Paso.
After starting 5-1, USC finished 8-4-1. Marinovich was pulled from the bowl game midway through the fourth quarter as a season-long feud with Coach Larry Smith erupted in a shouting match on the sidelines.
A few weeks later, he was arrested for possession of cocaine near his mother’s Balboa home. He spent a year in a diversionary program and charges were dropped. Instead of returning to USC, Marinovich declared himself eligible for the NFL draft and was selected by the Raiders, who cut him in the summer of 1993.
But in the final minutes on that cool fall day in Pasadena five years ago, Marinovich was magical.
There was no evidence the magic would occur at such an opportune time. Smith had told reporters before the UCLA game he had not decided whether to start Marinovich or backup Shane Foley. By then Smith had become exasperated with Marinovich for missing classes and team meetings.
“That was his little ego trip,” Marinovich said of the coach. “Saying, ‘I’ve got control to do this.’ Then, a few hours later having it all on the line . . . it was great.”
When UCLA went ahead in the seesaw game with 1:19 left, Smith had no one but Marinovich to turn to.
After the kickoff, the quarterback’s best friend, Scott Ross, gave him a “Please pull it out!” look of desperation.
Starting at USC’s 23-yard line, Marinovich completed a third-down, 27-yard pass to Gary Wellman for first down at the UCLA 45. Marinovich went to Wellman again, for 22 yards, with 26 seconds left.
USC called time and Marinovich and Wellman went to the sidelines.
"[Smith] asked me what I wanted to run, instead of being bullheaded like normal,” Marinovich said. “In crunch time, he didn’t get personal. I’m glad he wasn’t that stubborn and smart enough to keep his hands off.”
Marinovich knew what to do. If Wellman, his favorite receiver, was not open, he could look to Morton, who had caught one touchdown pass in 10 previous games.
Morton had proved himself by scoring with 3:09 left, Marinovich deciding to throw to Morton after the receiver had pestered him for much of the game.
“I can make a play,” he told Marinovich, then a sophomore. “Just give me the ball.”
Marinovich did not call a play for Morton, but when he saw the receiver open in a streak pattern, he said, “All right, here’s your shot.”
Then, Morton got a second chance on the game winner and used that performance as a base in becoming one of USC’s best receivers.
Marinovich has disappeared from football, but no one can take away one of his finest moments.
After it was over, a fan recognized the red-haired quarterback as he walked to his car in the Rose Bowl parking lot. A UCLA fan.
“He was thanking me for the performance,” Marinovich said.
A UCLA fan thanking him for defeating the Bruins.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
How They Fared
* 16 of 25 passing, 215 yards, 2 TDs
* Key plays: Fourth-quarter touchdown passes of 21 and 23 yards, the latter with 16 seconds remaining.