Former UCLA quarterback Cade McNown shares the magic of sweeping USC

Former UCLA quarterback Cade McNown on the sideline before a game between the Bruins and Arizona at the Rose Bowl.
Former UCLA quarterback Cade McNown on the sideline before a game between the Bruins and Arizona at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Nobody can put their fours up like Cade McNown.

UCLA’s all-time leading passer beat USC in 1995, ’96, ’97 and ’98, earning a distinction among the hundreds of quarterbacks on both teams going back to the first meeting between the rivals nearly a century ago.

He’s the only quarterback to start four rivalry games and go 4-0.

Still looking fit enough to trot onto the field and throw a deep post route, McNown, 45, jokes that he’ll collapse his thumb and give USC fans a four-fingered handshake whenever the situation dictates.


“That’s only for the people who are being a little aggressive,” McNown said with a laugh. “It’s tongue-in-cheek, it’s in a fun way.”

On his final play in the rivalry, on Nov. 21, 1998, McNown essentially gave the Trojans a far less wholesome hand gesture. The Bruins’ 34-17 victory at the Rose Bowl secure, he faked a pitch and ran a bootleg, sprinting 23 yards. Television replays showed USC coach Paul Hackett enraged on the sideline, yelling for his defenders to wallop the quarterback.

McNown said he wasn’t going off script to rub it in, just running the play that coach Bob Toledo called. The Bruins went on to play in the Rose Bowl game and haven’t been back since, though there’s a chance the 23-year drought could end in January thanks in large part to the quarterback breaking McNown’s records.

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Nov. 16, 2022

Last weekend, Dorian Thompson-Robinson made his 45th start to bump McNown into second place on the school’s all-time list. The fifth-year senior needs 783 passing yards — roughly three games’ worth — to break McNown’s record of 10,708.

“It’s fun to see that stuff,” McNown said of his records falling, “and quite frankly, I can’t believe I have any records here. The changes to the game, it’s so different, and when I was playing, I would say we were a pretty balanced offense, we ran the ball a lot and just by virtue of the fact that I played four years, I had the opportunity to set some career records whereas most of UCLA’s history, you couldn’t even play as a freshman.”

Having watched Thompson-Robinson since he made his college debut, jogging onto the field against Cincinnati in the second quarter as an injury replacement, McNown said he was impressed with the growth that has enhanced Thompson-Robinson’s running talent and arm strength.

“He’s always every year shown tremendous athleticism and capability managing drives, managing games,” McNown said. “What I think is different this year is that he’s doing it more consistently, right? Game after game after game. And look, everybody’s going to make mistakes and he’s made some mistakes here and there, but overall I think he’s managed the games really well. He’s always good for some highlight reels in just about every game he plays.”


UCLA quarterback Cade McNown is chased by USC defensive tackle Darrell Russell.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

As he glanced around the Rose Bowl last weekend before the Bruins played Arizona, a long-missing buzz palpable among boosters and alumni packing one end of the field, McNown said he cherished seeing his alma mater back in the race for a Pac-12 title. That remained the case even after UCLA’s 34-28 loss to the Wildcats.

UCLA has sold all 70,865 tickets that it’s making available for the No. 16 Bruins’ showdown against the No. 7 Trojans on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, removing four of the 12 end zone tarps to make room for extra fans. A victory would give Thompson-Robinson his second consecutive triumph in the rivalry and third in five years after being on the field for one play as a freshman in 2018.

“People turn out when they’re excited about UCLA football,” said McNown, who works in private equity as managing director of the Carlyle Group, “and so I think that’s starting to happen and I would expect to see continued interest as this team keeps winning.”

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown scrambles for a gain against USC.
UCLA quarterback Cade McNown scrambles for a gain against USC on Nov. 22, 1997.
(Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles Times)

Like Thompson-Robinson, McNown became a starter as a freshman. McNown beat out concussion-plagued teammate Ryan Fien to make his first start in his fifth game of the ’95 season. The Bruins weren’t expected to beat the Rose Bowl-bound Trojans that year, especially while missing star running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar because of a sprained ankle. But McNown showed resolve, scrambling for 21 yards on third and 13 to help UCLA secure a 24-20 victory.

The ’96 game is McNown’s favorite rivalry memory. For most of the game, it looked like a day the Bruins would rather forget. They fell behind by 17 points with five minutes left when USC receiver R. Jay Soward, who had just scored a 78-yard touchdown, looked into a sideline camera and referenced UCLA’s winning streak in the series.

“Five years?” Soward said before making a throat-slashing gesture with his right hand. “It’s over.”

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown gets off a pass despite tight defense in the second quarter against USC's Scott Fields.
(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)

Not quite. McNown rallied the Bruins to force overtime, where they pulled out a 48-41 triumph in double overtime to extend the streak and make Soward look foolish, especially after he dropped a pass on third down in the second overtime.

“Now, we didn’t see that, that was on the TV coverage,” McNown said of Soward’s throat slash, “but it sure made me feel good when I saw that later. I was like, oh, yeah, that’s what you get.”

McNown sparked a 31-24 victory over the Trojans in ‘97 with three touchdown passes and extended the rivalry-record winning streak to eight games a year later, sealing his Bruins legacy.

The USC-UCLA game is more than just a rivalry of the two Pac-12 L.A. universities. Many players on both teams were once teammates in high school.

Nov. 17, 2022

“The fact that he could play all four years as a starting quarterback is impressive in its own right,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said, “and then to win all four of those games obviously kind of cements his place in history. He was an all-timer here and is an all-timer in the history of college football at quarterback.”

After finishing third in the ’98 Heisman Trophy voting, McNown was selected No. 12 overall by the Chicago Bears in the NFL draft. He also played for the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers as part of a four-year career. In 2020, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Another McNown could roam the Rose Bowl in 2026 if son Johnny, a wide receiver who just helped the Los Angeles Loyola High freshman team complete its first unbeaten season since the late 1970s, fulfills his desire to become a Bruin. A position switch might even put him in position to challenge his father’s record.

“All the UCLA faithful would love to see somebody go 4-0 against the Trojans, so I’m rooting for it every time,” McNown said. “But hey, listen, if we can just go 1-0 this year I’ll be thrilled.”