Brad Otton, who transferred out of the Big Sky Conference to play quarterback for USC nearly two years ago, was right at home in the Rose Bowl on Monday.
In a classic Rose Bowl game that became an old-fashioned Rocky Mountain shootout, Otton completed 29 of 44 passes for 391 yards--12 for 216 yards to Keyshawn Johnson--and led the Trojans to a 41-32 victory over Northwestern.
Did any of it seem familiar?
Many of the 100,102 on hand were reminded of USC’s 42-37 Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin in 1963.
Otton’s generalship, Johnson’s magnificent game, and Northwestern quarterback Steve Schnur and his tailback, Darnell Autry, created a spellbinder.
USC, unable to start fast over the season’s last six weeks, finally made its move early.
John Robinson’s team used its no-huddle, two-minute offense on its first two series to help take a 24-7 lead. And in the fourth quarter, when it seemed the game was coming apart for the Trojans, Otton--who once threw for 540 yards in a game for Weber State--led a rally that dealt Northwestern its first loss since Sept. 16.
Johnson was never better than he was Monday. He had eight catches and 124 yards by halftime, then registered the game’s prettiest play, a 56-yard sprint with an Otton pass in the third quarter that gave USC a 31-19 lead.
In his final college game, Johnson:
--Broke J.J. Stokes’ two-year-old Rose Bowl record of 176 receiving yards.
--Caught 12 balls, second only to Stokes’ 14 in 1994.
--Finished the 1995 season with 102 catches. Need perspective? All-time great USC receiver Lynn Swann had 95 in his entire USC career.
USC finished 9-2-1 (third-ranked Northwestern was 10-2) and for at least some of Robinson’s players, the victory made up for earlier losses to Notre Dame and UCLA.
“Oh, sure it does,” senior offensive tackle John Michels said.
“I forget, who won those games?”
Fullback Terry Barnum, whose 21-yard touchdown reception gave USC a 14-7 lead in the second quarter, wasn’t so sure.
“This is the best feeling I’ve ever had in sports,” he said. “But does it make up for Notre Dame and UCLA? Not really. I don’t think anything will ever make up for that . . . but winning the Rose Bowl is a great feeling.”
Afterward, Northwestern Coach Gary Barnett, while still fielding questions about his coaching future, saluted his chief tormentors, Otton and Johnson.
“SC played an outstanding game. . . . Otton and Johnson were a level above everyone else on the field,” he said.
“Even when we knew Otton was going to Johnson, we couldn’t stop it sometimes. That’s as good a job of quarterbacking as I’ve seen in a long time.”
Of his future at Northwestern and persistent rumors UCLA will make a major pitch to hire him, Barnett said: “I’m not going to talk about that right now.”
Robinson, too, saluted the 6-6 Otton, a junior, but also expressed sympathy for senior Kyle Wachholtz, the other half of USC’s two-quarterback offense who never got in the game.
“It’s unfortunate Kyle didn’t get to play, but Brad was playing so well we just couldn’t,” Robinson said.
Otton appeared before the media with his right shoulder wrapped in ice. Wachholtz dressed quickly and left.
“I’m sure Kyle’s terribly disappointed,” offensive coordinator Mike Riley said after the first game this season when one quarterback went the distance when both were sound. “I felt Brad had a good grasp of the game, and I didn’t want to make a change.”
USC players and coaches agreed afterward the difference was the pass blocking by the likes of Michels, Jeremy Hogue, Kyle Ramsay, Robert Loya and Norberto Garrido. Otton had plenty of time to throw.
“We wore them down,” Hogue said. “They threw seven guys at us sometimes, but we hung together. They were sucking wind in the fourth quarter.”
On an afternoon when Robinson bumped his bowl game record up to 7-1, these were the plays that created one of best games in the game’s 94-year history and gave the Pacific 10 Conference its first Rose Bowl victory in four years:
--Otton’s 21-yard scoring pass to Barnum early in the second quarter, capping a 78-yard drive for a 14-7 lead.
--Freshman cornerback Daylon McCutcheon short-hopping a Northwestern fumble (Barnett would later call it a “quote fumble unquote”) and returning it 53 yards for a touchdown and a 24-7 lead late in the second quarter. TV replays indicated the fumble, by Wildcat receiver Brian Musso, may occurred after his knee was down.
--After cutting the score to 24-13 at the start of the second half, Northwestern pulled off a perfect on-side kick. No Trojans were near the ball.
--Autry, who had a 110-yard, three-touchdown game, made a brilliant nine-yard dash to the end zone to make it 24-19 early in the third quarter.
--The 56-yard Otton-to-Johnson play made it 31-19, but a Schnur keeper (for 31-26) and a two-yarder by Autry put the Wildcats ahead, 32-31.
--The go-ahead play for USC was a career-long 46-yard field goal by freshman Adam Abrams with 9:09 left. That capped a 12-play, 39-yard USC drive on which Otton converted on three third-down plays.
--The game-breaker for Northwestern was an interception of a Schnur pass by USC’s Jesse Davis, who returned it 41 yards to the Northwestern 31 with 6:42 left. Eight plays later, the Trojans wrapped it up with a two-yard Delon Washington touchdown with 2:55 left, for 41-32.
At that point, Schnur got the Wildcats to USC’s 26 and threw a rainbow into the darkening end zone that D’Wayne Bates caught, but the play was nullified by a penalty. When Brian Gowins’ 48-yard field-goal try hit the upright, the Wildcats had no chance.
Northwestern defensive coordinator Ron Vanderlinden said USC surprised his unit with a three-wide receiver, two-back offense.
“We broke down their films, and they did that only 13% of the time the last six weeks of their season,” he said.
“We had a package for it, but we didn’t practice it enough.”
Robinson had a simple explanation of why these two teams created a Rose Bowl masterpiece.
“You had two very good football teams playing well and when that happens, the tide of battle turns,” he said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
John Robinson’s Rosy Record
Result: USC 14, Michigan 6
Comment: Charles White and Vince Evans scored to give the Trojans their 11th consecutive victory after opening the season with a loss.
Result: USC 17, Michigan 10
Comment: White scored what proved to be the decisive points on a disputed three-yard dive in the second quarter.
Result: USC 17, Ohio State 16
Comment: White rushed for a record 247 yards and scored a one-yard touchdown with 1:32 remaining for the victory.
Result: USC 41, Northwestern 32
Comment: Brad Otton passes for 391 yards, 216 to Keyshawn Johnson.