Was it going to be 100 victories or 99 tears?
With USC Coach John Robinson going for his 100th college victory Saturday night before 48,404 at the Coliseum, the Trojans flirted with one of the worst losses of his long career, scrambling for their lives to beat 25-point underdog Nevada Las Vegas.
USC finally won, 35-21, but Robinson had some competition for the game ball.
If not for the spectacular speed and big-play talent of sophomore receiver R. Jay Soward, that ball might have been going to Las Vegas.
Soward scored on 44- and 78-yard receptions in the fourth quarter to bring back a Trojan team that trailed, 7-6, at halftime; 14-6 in the third; and 21-14 in the fourth.
USC tied the score, 21-21, after Soward’s 44-yard catch with 12:03 left, and then took the lead on the 78-yarder with 6:57 left in the game. Soward caught five passes for 167 yards.
Freshman tailback Malaefou MacKenzie, substituting for LaVale Woods after Woods sprained his left ankle in the first quarter, gave USC its first comfortable lead with 5:49 left when he scored on an 11-yard touchdown run and the Trojans went ahead by 14.
MacKenzie finished with 104 yards in 19 carries, only the fifth true freshman at USC to rush for 100 yards.
“It was all we could handle,” Robinson said. “The first half we stumbled and fumbled around. We should have had 14 or 21 points. The longer it went, I think we felt threatened and played better.
“I thought it was a shootout and I thought we were both going to score just about all the time.”
UNLV quarterback Jon Denton never let up in his frenetic attack on USC’s vaunted backfield. He finished with 354 yards, completing 26 of 45 passes with one touchdown and one interception.
USC quarterback John Fox threw two interceptions but got the ball to Soward when it counted and finished with 355 yards, completing 23 of 35 passes.
When the dust finally cleared, USC President Steven Sample and Athletic Director Mike Garrett presented Robinson with a Tiffany crystal bust of Traveler.
The only coaches to reach 100 wins faster than Robinson were George Woodruff, Barry Switzer, Tom Osborne, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bud Wilkinson and Joe Paterno.
Had USC lost, it would have ranked among such disasters as USC’s 24-10 loss to Memphis State in the 1991 season opener and the 24-7 loss to Fresno State in the 1992 Freedom Bowl.
The Trojans had trouble with a UNLV team that went 1-11 last season but had won twice already this season and led No. 23 Air Force much of the game before losing by one point.
With 53 players from California, the Rebels were a team with a cause against USC. Receiver Damon Williams, from Culver City, nearly became the hero for every kid USC ever turned down.
Williams had the go-ahead touchdown pass in his hands with less than nine minutes left, dropping Denton’s third-down bomb in the end zone.
Williams finished with 11 catches for 165 yards, and Len Ware, from Rancho Cucamonga, caught seven passes for 96 yards.
The Trojans left the field to boos at halftime, trailing, 7-6. They fell behind, 14-6, in the third quarter before taking a tie into the fourth quarter after a 41-yard reception by Billy Miller and another big third-down catch set up by a one-yard run by MacKenzie with 2:09 left in the third.
Fox passed to Rodney Sermon for the two-point conversion and the 14-14 tie.
All over the field, there were players who wanted to be Trojans, and don’t think Coach Jeff Horton didn’t keep telling them USC didn’t think they were good enough.
UNLV cornerback Amar Brisco, who intercepted one of John Fox’s passes, felt right at home in the Coliseum. He was in the Coliseum stands in 1984 when his aunt, Valerie Brisco-Hooks, won three Olympic gold medals.
Said right guard Mike Reily, a junior from Burbank recruited for a time: “It’s not the point of going back there and getting revenge. It’s a chance to make their coaches sit back and rethink why they didn’t sign us.”
Fox had thrown only one interception in his first three games as starter, but he threw two costly interceptions on consecutive possessions in the first half against UNLV.
The first was picked off by Brisco at the USC 37, but it proved meaningless a moment later when UNLV’s Denton threw an interception on the next play, right into the arms of Chad Morton at the USC 4-yard line.
USC was on the move on its next possession, marching all the way to the UNLV 24 when Fox threw a pass into the arms of the Rebels’ Quincy Sanders in the end zone.
The troubles were far from over.
The Trojans went 66 yards on their next possession, only to be turned away on UNLV’s doorstep.
Fullback Ted Iacenda was stopped for no gain on third and one from the two-yard line.
Then, with the game still scoreless, the Trojans tried to send Delon Washington over the top on fourth and one, and he was stopped cold by Talance Sawyer.
Even after all that, USC still had a chance to score the first touchdown on its next possession, starting with incredible field position on UNLV’s 17-yard line after the defense forced a punt from the end zone and Morton returned the punt 16 yards.
But on third and three from the 10, Fox rolled out and threw an incomplete pass, and USC settled for a 27-yard field goal by Adam Abrams for a 3-0 lead with 2:48 left in the first half.