USC football: 2-for-1 deal at quarterback may pay off; it has in past

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Brad Otton knows what it feels like to alternate at quarterback for USC.

Nearly two decades ago, Otton and Kyle Wachholtz went through much of the 1995 season rotating every quarter.

Neither quarterback was particularly happy with the arrangement, but the Trojans won a share of the Pacific 10 Conference title and defeated Northwestern in the Rose Bowl.

So when Otton learned that USC Coach Lane Kiffin anticipated playing both Max Wittek and Cody Kessler in Thursday’s opener at Hawaii — and possibly beyond — it stirred memories.


“It can work,” Otton said. “I would just say you won’t see the best from either one and how they are able to perform if they have to trade off.”

Kiffin has said that Wittek and Kessler will not alternate series and probably will not alternate quarters. But the coach has otherwise been vague. A decision about which quarterback will go first will be made after the Trojans arrive in Hawaii on Tuesday.

The Hawaii game, and possibly another game or two, are expected to serve as something like NFL preseason exhibitions for the two relatively inexperienced quarterbacks.

USC has successfully played more than one quarterback by plan a few times.


In 1962, coach John McKay utilized several platoons that included quarterbacks Pete Beathard and Bill Nelsen. The two combined to pass for 18 touchdowns, and the Trojans finished with an 11-0 record and atop the Associated Press and United Press International polls.

“Thank God that doesn’t go on now,” Nelsen said, laughing, during a phone interview from his home in Florida. “It was weird circumstances and it worked out that both Pete and I got to play an equal amount of time.

“You’ve got two people that are fairly equal. I’d be standing on the sideline next to Coach McKay and he would say, ‘Go in there and throw this pass.’ So it would work out. That’s just the way it was. You didn’t have questions about, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I’ve got to play more.’”

In 1971, after a midseason loss to Stanford, McKay alternated senior Jim Jones and junior Mike Rae every series in a victory at Notre Dame. Rae said the system remained in place for three more games — all victories — until Jones played nearly the entire game in a 7-7 tie with UCLA.

USC also had two talented quarterbacks on its 1972 national championship team — Rae and sophomore Pat Haden — but they did not alternate. Rae started every game for an unbeaten team that scored 51 points or more three times. The run-dominated Trojans’ smallest margin of victory was nine points.

Haden had played at La Puente Bishop Amat High with Trojans receiver John McKay Jr., the coach’s son, and was close to the McKay family.

The Trojans, ranked No. 8 to start the season, opened with a 31-10 victory on the roadagainst fourth-ranked Arkansas.

“I knew if I would have gone out against Arkansas and had a bad quarter, I may have never played again,” Rae said, laughing.


Rae went on to play for the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League, the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the USFL’s L.A. Express. During the 1983 season with the Express, Rae alternated each half with former UCLA quarterback Tom Ramsey.

“I think it can work,” Rae said of Kiffin’s intent to play two quarterbacks. But, he added, “that position is so central to football nowadays. You don’t want to get those boo birds going.”

In 1995, Trojans coach John Robinson and offensive coordinator Mike Riley could not choose between Otton and Wachholtz.

“They were really even,” Robinson said this week. “Both were very capable.”

Robinson and Riley expected that one of the quarterbacks would separate from the other once the season began. “But they both played well,” Robinson said, “so they both played.”

Otton started 10 of 12 games and passed for 14 touchdowns with four interceptions. Wachholtz started twice and passed for 11 touchdowns with three interceptions.

“At first, you think everyone is eyeing you on the sideline and keeping track of what each guy is doing,” Otton said. “But then you realize no one is pulling for one guy or the other. They just want to win.”

There were games in which one quarterback played more than the other because of injury or performance. Otton played the entire game in the 41-32 Rose Bowl victory over Northwestern.


He said alternating takes a mental toll on quarterbacks.

“You want to be a team guy and root for the other guy to do well,” he said. “If he goes in there and throws two touchdowns, you’re happy for the team but you’re also saying, ‘Dang, I might not get in the game again.’

“It plays with your head.”

Riley is now head coach at Oregon State, and he has said he will also play two quarterbacks — Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz — in the Beavers’ opener against Eastern Washington.

However, he also recently told ESPN that he had “regrets about that game,” referring to his and Robinson’s decision to stick with Otton and not play Wachholtz at all in USC’s Rose Bowl victory over Northwestern.

Robinson now works for USC’s Trojan Athletic Fund and as a college and pro football radio analyst. After observing Wittek and Kessler during several training-camp practices this month, he said playing both might be the best thing for the Trojans. At least for now.

“People say we need one guy to be a leader. Hell, you need a guy to play well at quarterback,” Robinson said. “He could speak a different language or whatever.

“Just go out and play well.”

Twitter: @latimesklein