Friday, December 13, 2002
1975 - S. California 18, Ohio State 17
By Dan O'Sullivan
They opened the season with a humiliating loss, but ended it less than four months later playing in the Rose Bowl.
Oh, what a reversal of fortune for the 1974 USC Trojans.
Coming off a 9-2-1 campaign and sporting a handful of All-American candidates, the Trojans figured to be going places in 1974. Little did they know their season would kick off with a 22-7 pounding at the hands of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
The Trojans bounced back to go 8-0-1 in their next nine games, which brought them into national-championship contention and landed them a Rose Bowl berth. Former quarterback Pat Haden, a senior at the time, recognized the significance of the achievement.
"In those days, the Rose Bowl had an ambiance and a reputation high above the other bowl games," said Haden. "It was the most special game on January 1, more than the Orange Bowl, more than the Sugar Bowl. It meant a lot to us at USC. If you grew up in southern California watching the game, like I did, you wanted to participate in it."
For the third straight New Year's, USC (9-1-1) matched up with Big Ten co-champs Ohio State (10-1). Coach Woody Hayes' Buckeyes boasted a powerful offense featuring Heisman-winning tailback Archie Griffin and fullback extraordinaire Pete Johnson. On defense, Hayes trotted out All-Americans at defensive end (Van Ness DeCree) and defensive back (Neal Colzie).
The USC offense looked anemic in the early going, managing only a field goal to trail 7-3 at the half. Worse yet, its star tailback Anthony Davis, who had run for 1,384 yards during the regular season, was knocked out of the game with a rib injury.
Neither team scored again until the fourth quarter, when Haden hit tight end Jim Obradovich with an 8-yard touchdown pass to put the Trojans up 10-7. The Buckeyes scored on their next two possessions to take a 17-10 advantage.
Late in the game, USC got the ball one last time on its 17-yard line. After driving to the Ohio State 40, the Trojans faced a critical fourth-and-1 play. Alan Carter, subbing for the injured Davis, took the handoff from Haden.
"I remember Alan Carter bulling his way, fighting his way, scratching his way for that 1 yard, or 1 1/2 yards, to get us that first down," Haden said admiringly.
The next play called for wide receiver Johnny McKay, son of coach John McKay, to run a corner route toward the end zone. Haden found McKay, a longtime pal of his, for a 38-yard touchdown pass with 2:03 remaining. USC now trailed 17-16.
"For me, it was a great moment," said Haden. "I didn't think I was going to be playing professionally, so I thought it was the last football game I was going to play. And to be able to throw the winning touchdown to your lifelong friend - that was thrilling."
Actually, USC still trailed by a point. Coach McKay had faced the same scenario in the 1967 Rose Bowl against Purdue, when he called for a two-point conversion with three minutes left. The attempt failed. Ignoring history, McKay elected to go for the win once again.
Coach McKay, Haden and offensive coordinator John Robinson decided on a roll-out play in which Haden had the option to either run or look for Johnny McKay in the end zone. When both options fell through, he whipped a pass to wide receiver Shelton Diggs, who made a diving catch to give USC an 18-17 lead.
Ohio State's ensuing drive ended when Tom Skladany's 62-yard field-goal attempt fell short, and USC had its second Rose Bowl win in three years. The Trojans also topped the final UPI poll, thus splitting the national title with AP champs Oklahoma.
Haden, a Rhodes scholar, went on to study at Oxford University and then played quarterback with the Los Angeles Rams from 1976-1981. Today he is a partner in a venture capital firm and serves as commentator for Notre Dame football on NBC.
Though he has accomplished much since USC's championship season, Haden can't help but occasionally reflect on the 1975 Rose Bowl.
"Even today, almost 25 years later, when January 1 rolls around, I think about that game," he said. "All of us who played in it have a connection with that game and that moment."