Playing out the USC-UCLA rivalry when there’s no tomorrow

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UCLA and USC will renew a football rivalry Saturday when, for only the fourth time since 1975, neither team will be looking forward to a bowl game appearance. USC was banned from bowl games as part of its punishment for NCAA rules violations. UCLA hasn’t met the required six-win minimum. But the game could be significant anyway, just as the ones below were:

1980: UCLA 20, USC 17

The Trojans, ranked 11th in the nation, and the Bruins, ranked 13th, were college football’s best teams not going to a bowl game. Both were prohibited because of Pacific 10 Conference sanctions against them.


USC had the momentum, having won seven of the last eight games in the series, with six Rose Bowl appearances.

And the winds of change were blowing in Westwood.

“The word on the street was if I didn’t win that game, I was out,” recalled UCLA Coach Terry Donahue, who was 0-4 against USC heading into the game.

“Who knows if that was accurate, but that was what the press was reporting. [Athletic Director] J.D. Morgan never talked to me about it.”

The only thing Donahue heard from Morgan after the game was … congratulations.

USC had Marcus Allen, but UCLA used an eight-man front to hold him to 72 yards rushing. For UCLA, Jay Schroeder came off the bench and completed nine of 11 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns.

Still, the Trojans led, 17-13, late in the game — until a Schroeder pass was deflected by defensive back Jeff Fisher into the hands of Freeman McNeil, who completed a 58-yard scoring play.

“I’ve always appreciated that,” Donahue said. “Jeff was a great player and has had a great coaching career. I’m just glad he helped mine as well.”


Still, Donahue had to sweat out the end.

“They got the ball back and dang it if they didn’t start driving on us,” Donahue said. “We managed to hold them off. I don’t know if it saved my job. Maybe I was out, maybe I was not. Thank goodness it didn’t come to that.”

That victory launched a span in which the Bruins won five of seven games against USC and went to three Rose Bowls.

1996: UCLA 48, USC 41 (2OT)

The Bruins went into the game 4-6 and not going anywhere in Bob Toledo’s first year as coach. But UCLA was about to launch one of the greatest spans in its football history.

UCLA rallied from a 17-point deficit in the last six minutes and won on a 25-yard touchdown run by Skip Hicks in the second overtime. Cade McNown passed for 356 yards and a touchdown and ran for two scores.

“That was kind of a coming-out party for Bob Toledo,” said former UCLA wide receiver Danny Farmer, who had a 52-yard touchdown reception in the game. “It was his first really big win and it ended up bouncing us into next season.”


UCLA lost to Washington State and Ryan Leaf, and Tennessee and Peyton Manning to start the 1997 season, then won 20 consecutive games. The Bruins came within a tackle or two against Miami of playing for the national championship at the end of the 1998 season, when McNown was a top Heisman Trophy candidate.

The roots of the winning streak took hold in 1996.

USC led, 38-17, when UCLA started driving with 11 minutes left. A field goal and McNown touchdown got the Bruins close. The Trojans recovered an onside kick with 1:39 left, but then fumbled, leading to a Hicks touchdown to send the game into overtime.

The key to the comeback, Farmer said, was strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall.

“We wore them down,” Farmer said. “Our conditioning under Coach Yox did that. USC tired out and we made the big plays at the end.”

Yoxall left UCLA after the 1998 season. He is now the strength and conditioning coach at Auburn, the No. 1 team in the current Bowl Championship Series standings.

1999: USC 17, UCLA 7

USC tailback Chad Morton, perhaps preparing for his NFL future with the New York Jets, channeled Joe Namath before the Trojans opened training camp, guaranteeing that USC would end the Bruins’ eight-game winning streak against the Trojans.


“I’m not trying to start a war or anything. It’s talk,” Morton said at Pac-10 media day. “We just need to back it up.”

By the time the game rolled around in late November, it looked as if it could go either way.

Each team was 4-6.

“I really remember the intensity of that week — especially Chad Morton,” said former Trojans quarterback John Fox, who rose to No. 1 on the depth chart after Carson Palmer suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and Mike Van Raaphorst struggled to generate victories.

The game was far from artistic as the teams combined for 25 penalties. UCLA committed five turnovers.

Robyn Norwood of The Times called it “a pratfall classic.”

USC won on the strength of two touchdown passes from Fox to freshman receiver Kareem Kelly. The second stood despite replays showing one of Kelly’s feet touching the ground out of bounds before the other came down in the end zone. (This was before coaches could challenge calls by officials and have them overturned through replay.)

Morton rushed for 143 yards, the last on the final play before fans hoisted him onto their shoulders.


“Being carried off the field, there’s no greater feeling,” Morton said afterward. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of pressure that’s been placed on me since I made that guarantee. I haven’t slept all week. I’ve been pacing, and haven’t been able to eat. The team was so fired up, and they backed me up.”

The victory started the Trojans on a seven-game winning streak over the Bruins.