The Greatest Game

By Paul Morantz

We Are SC Mag copyright 2005

Sports Illustrated in 2005, following the Orange Bowl, selected the “Greatest Games” in USC History.

The No.1 pick by the magazine was the famous l967 O.J. vs. Beban game.  The 2005 BCS title game came in only as No.6.  If one talks of drama and cross town – rivalry, the 67 game could be indeed the greatest.  It remains the only time the two local rivals played for the National Championship at the season’s end,  as well to determine the  Heisman winner.  And it remains one of the most; if not the most, hard fought Trojan wins of all time, filled with individual heroic performances.

But if Greatest Game is defined as the greatest “team” performance, USC’s 2005 Orange Bowl domination is not only No.1 in USC  history, there is a large gap before finding a No. 2.

I covered the l967 game for the Daily Trojan.  It was awesome and emotional.  On one sideline Gary Beban would wince with pain as the tape would be rewrapped over his injured ribs before returning to action.  Across the field O.J. Simpson played on an injured foot.  The unsung hero of that day was sophomore defensive end Jimmy Gunn who had been out since the first quarter with torn ligaments. He  begged Coach John McKay to put him back in after Simpson’s historic cut back 64-yard touchdown run  put USC in front 21-20.  On one leg, Gunn, who is now bronzed on campus as a member of the l969 Wild Bunch, continually sacked Gary Beban to seal the victory.  The Row celebrated that night like never before.  When the rain came that night, students imitated Gene Kelly.

But the truth of that game was that for 3 and ¼ quarters the Bruins outplayed Troy.  They continually moved the ball only for the Trojans to stiffen when their goal line was approached.  USC was only in striking distance at the end because Pat Cashman  picked Beban and took it to the house and because Bill Hayhoe blocked several of UCLA’s All American kicker field goals, frustrating him to miss others  including the extra point on UCLA’s last score, the ultimate margin of  victory.  USC did not get a first down until the second quarter.

While Oklahoma is not the cross town rival, it had in fact become USC’s main competitor by 2004 creating an anticipation matching the l967 Bruin game.  But unlike that contest long ago in the days of flower power, this modern title match was total domination– from start to finish, offense, defense and special teams.  No Trojan team ever did this from start to finish on a team of this quality. USC put up 38 first half points on a defense that coming into the game could hardly remember when it was the last time they were scored on.  Troy’s defense overwhelmed an offensive line filled with consensus future all pros.  As Marcus Allen later suggested at the Celebration, you could see it even in the Sooners opening touchdown march.  USC was winning the line of scrimmage.  Jason White made some good escapes and throws, and some defenders slipped.  But on the sidelines, Saun Cody knew and told his fellow defenders.  The Trojans had them.  White would run out of escape routs, the Trojans would slip no more,  Jason would bail out.   And it all happened.

No USC team ever, let alone against what was maybe the best team Trojans ever played, displayed such a performance. Sooner dream receivers were shut down, the touted best ever freshman back was sent back to the 12th grade, and last year’s Heisman winner was knocked down and out in the NFL draft list.  USC’s offense line and receivers came of age, Matt Leinart ended forever the Heisman curse and the tailbacks proved Auburn was not only No. 2, but its running back duo also ran second.  Ryan Kileen not only continued his field goal streak but constantly boomed kickoffs far into the end zone while Tom Malone punted with a surgeon’s skill. The USC kick coverage teams answered why they are called “special” teams. The Trojans not only sent Oklahoma fans to an early wagon train Westward Ho, but wore down their own fans through constant play after play celebration.

No other total performance against such a quality team exists in USC history.  For No. 2  I would pick l974 USC –Norte Dame. Down 24-6 at halftime, USC exploded in similar total domination in the second half after Anthony Davis returned the kick-off for a touchdown followed by Davis Lewis’s emotional special team hit on the 7 yard line, similar to Thomas Williams hits.  From that point USC’s defense, led by Richard “Batman” Wood, overwhelmed the Irish, special teams came alive, and every pass Pat Haden threw J.K. McKay caught and seemingly every other AD run ended in a score.  Charles Phillips interception-touchdown run made it 49 points in a little over 15 second half minutes against the nation’s top rated defense.  Like in the BCS title game, USC had time to score and then score still more but took out the starters.  The agony of 55-24 caused legendary Ara Parseghian to announce his retirement from ND or he might have continued to coach forever ala Joe Paterno.  While the third quarter plus performance may be USC’s greatest over a short span, the Trojans still were dominated completely the first half.

In another No.1 vs. No. 2 shootout, USC similarly destroyed Wisconsin for three quarters, 42-14, in the l963 Rose Bowl.,  Pete Beathard, Willie Brown and Hal Bedsole and the defense doing no wrong to that point. But that one ended 42-37 and USC would have lost if Willie Brown had not ended one late Badger drive by intercepting in Troy’s end zone or if the game was played 61 minutes instead of 60.

1978’s dominating Trojan 24—14 win over No. I Tide at Alabama was greater than the score indicated, but USC mistakes kept it close until the fourth quarter.  The same year USC came from behind to beat Notre Dame and preserve its national title, 27-25 on a Frank Jordan field with seconds remaining.  But in this one Troy’s comeback was after letting a 17 point lead disappear to a Joe Montana rally.

Sports Illustrated listed as No. 2 the 1975 Rose Bowl which was played right after the l974 ND game. Like the 67 Bruin game this was dramatic, USC scoring on a Haden to McKay pass on its final drive and beating Ohio State and Archie Griffin 18-17 with a 2-point conversion do-or-die pass that gave USC a share of the National Title.  A truly spirited performance, led on defense by Art Riley, it cannot match what Troy did on January 4, 2005.  The 2007 Rose Bowl was great 2nd half but Wolverines played even until their QB through a pick in third quarter to LJ.

Other games SI listed, like the l980 Charles White-led last drive to beat Ohio State 17-16 in Rose Bowl, are all classic thrills and chills.  Each was truly a great game and great team performance.  But no team in USC history played like the Trojans in Miami in 2005.  No Trojan team had heat-seeking missiles numbered 58 and 6.  No other Trojan  team put on an offensive and defensive clinic for the local pro team.