USC's best football team could be the 1978 squad.
October 6, 1998
LOS ANGELES -- It was arguably the most talent-rich football team that USC has ever fielded.
The 1978 Trojans, under the direction of third-year head coach John Robinson, was stacked with future NFL talent and oozed with Pro-Bowl potential.
No wonder the team finished 12-1 and was the national champion that year, the Trojans' last. Actually, USC only got the nod from the UPI poll, sharing national title honors with Alabama, which finished on top of the AP poll.
Ironically, the Trojans defeated Paul "Bear" Bryant's Crimson Tide team, 24-14, in Birmingham, Ala., in the third game of the 1978 season. But this isn't about what USC didn't win. It's about what it did.
Sure, the '78 squad had all of the talent, but much of it was raw. Said Robinson before the season: "This will be a very interesting team. It has great potential, but in six years as an assistant and head coach, it's the youngest USC team I've ever been associated with. We have very few seniors, which is one of those good news/bad news situations. It's exciting because, if our young players develop like we think they will, we've got a great future. But it's also scary right now because we don't know how well they will play while they're getting that experience. Some people become experienced players in two months, some in two years."
Among the true freshmen on the 1978 squad were future stars Marcus Allen, Chip Banks and Riki Gray. The sophomore class included the likes of Ronnie Lott, Hoby Brenner, Keith Van Horne, Dennis Smith and Jeff Fisher. Even guys like Charles White, Brad Budde, Anthony Munoz and Paul McDonald were only juniors.
All told, 37 players off of the 1978 roster played in the NFL, 19 of whom were freshmen and sophomores. Which is not to say that the senior class just stood on the sidelines, holding water bottles. Among the seniors who played major roles that season were fullback Lynn Cain (USC's second-leading rusher that year), flanker Calvin Sweeney (USC's leading receiver), offensive guard Pat Howell, nose guard Rich Dimler (USC's second-leading tackler) and placekicker Frank Jordan.
But the team that emerged from the Coliseum tunnel to play Texas Tech on Sept. 9 was definitely a youthful mix, starting seven freshmen and sophomores and seven juniors.
After two quarters of the opener, however, the youth movement looked shaky as the ninth-ranked Trojans trailed, 9-0, on three Texas Tech field goals. Cain and White helped USC take its first lead of the season with a pair of third quarter 1-yard touchdown runs. Frank Jordan hit a 34-yard field goal in the fourth quarter and the Trojan defense pitched a second-half shutout to seal the 17-9 season-opening win.
The Trojans, now ranked eighth, traveled to Eugene to face Oregon a week later and pummeled the Ducks, 37-10. Again, USC trailed at the outset, 3-0, but scored 23 consecutive points to take a 23-3 halftime lead. Oregon actually outgained USC, 289-260, but couldn't overcome its four turnovers - or Charles White's 173 yards on 32 carries.
USC moved up another notch to No. 7 and took the new ranking to Birmingham, Ala., to face No. 1 Alabama. The game was a grudge match of sorts. A year earlier, it was the Crimson Tide, ranked seventh, who invaded the Coliseum and upset No. 1 USC, 21-20. Revenge was on the Trojans' minds in 1978.
Troy opened well, using a White 40-yard touchdown run and a Jordan field goal to take a 10-0 halftime lead. Alabama closed to 10-7 in the third quarter but the Trojans responded with a pair of McDonald-to-Williams touchdown passes to take a commanding 24-7 lead, eventually winning, 24-14.
"It was a huge game for our team and a huge game for me personally," said McDonald, now a member of USC's radio broadcast team on XTRA-AM. "It was a loud crowd and it was very hot and extremely humid. We came in from the warm-ups and guys were exhausted, laying on the floor of the locker room with wet towels around their necks. I remember thinking we haven't even played yet and guys were already on the floor. But we still took it to them. Charles White had a great game and our offensive line blew their defense off of the line all game. It was really the first huge victory for that team."
USC, now No. 3, had a short week to prepare for Michigan State and hosted the Spartans in a Friday game. For the third time in four games, USC trailed early as Michigan State opened scoring with a field goal. The Trojans, however, responded with 30 straight points, including two more White touchdown runs, and won 30-9. Interestingly, the Spartans were led that day by senior flanker Kirk Gibson, who 10 years and 16 days later made World Series history a few miles up the road.
Perhaps it was the relaxation of a bye week. Perhaps it was the pressure of playing as the No. 2 team. Or maybe it was the fact that USC could barely snap the ball. Whatever, in its next game, USC suffered its only loss of the season at Arizona State, 20-7, losing to the Sun Devils in the schools' first meeting.
Starting center Chris Foote was out with an ankle injury and reserves Scott Fraser and Clint Hampton also were both banged up. USC turned to junior Brad Green to handle the snapping chores, but he had to leave the game in the first quarter with a knee injury. Robinson moved reserve guard David Anderson to center to try his hand, but he and McDonald couldn't get the exchange down. So senior nose guard Ray Peters, with only a few days practice at the position, became the center. He finished the game there and ultimately started the rest of the season at center.
But on that day in Tempe, USC fumbled the snap on six occasions and lost the ball four times, leading to 13 Arizona State points, the difference in the game.
"The Arizona State team we faced was very fired up to play us. All the press during the week was about how good our team was. And of course, we had the problem at center," McDonald said. "I knew it would be a long day when, in the first quarter, I threw a pass to Kevin Williams in the end zone and he dropped it. And he never dropped anything. I also was so worried about the snap, I wasn't reading their defense."
USC tumbled down to No. 7 and took out its frustration during Homecoming the next week against Oregon State. The Trojans beat the Beavers, 38-7, spotting their opponent a touchdown lead before scoring unanswered the rest of the game. USC outgained Oregon State, 502-166, and didn't lose one fumble. The game also featured Allen's first career touchdown as a Trojan.
Now No. 6, USC entertained California at the Coliseum and trounced the Bears, 42-17. As was the norm, California led after the first quarter, 3-0. But USC scored 35 straight points, including 28 in the second quarter, to take control of the game. USC outrushed its counterpart, 386-55, though McDonald did throw for four touchdowns in the win.
Still ranked sixth, USC traveled north to Palo Alto to take on Bill Walsh's Stanford team. Like clockwork, Stanford, then the Cardinals, got on the board first and led 7-0 after the first quarter. USC countered with a Jordan field goal and a White touchdown, ultimately winning, 13-7. White finished with 201 yards on 38 carries, breaking the 200-yard plateau for the first time in his career.
No. 5 USC used a balanced attack (187 yards rushing, 192 passing) to beat 19th-ranked Washington in Seattle on Nov. 11, 28-10. For the eighth time in nine games, USC trailed at the start. But the Trojans turned an early 3-0 deficit into a 21-3 halftime lead en route to the win on the cold and rainy afternoon.
The fifth-ranked Trojans (8-1) squared off against 14th-ranked UCLA (8-2) the following week. For a change, USC opened with a 17-0 halftime lead on a Jordan field goal and two touchdown passes from McDonald to Sweeney and Williams. The Trojans didn't score again, but had enough to hold off the Bruins, 17-10.
Eighth-ranked Notre Dame, the defending national champions, came calling the next week and came within a few seconds of handing USC, now ranked No. 3, its second loss of the season. The Trojans looked strong at the start, however, and took a 17-3 advantage into halftime.
"I hurt my leg in the first series of the game," McDonald said. "I came to the sidelines, but the trainers couldn't find anything wrong with me at the time. They just wrapped up my leg and I went back out there. I ended up throwing a touchdown pass on the drive and I told the trainers I felt fine."
USC increased its advantage to 24-6 entering the fourth quarter, but an Irish quarterback named Joe Montana led Notre Dame back.
Montana threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes sandwiched between a Pete Buchanan scoring run, giving Notre Dame a 25-24 lead with less than a minute to play. The Irish, however, had missed two-point conversions attempts after both of Montana's touchdown passes, leaving USC a window of opportunity.
With 46 seconds to play, McDonald led USC (with the aid of two timeouts) from its own 30 to the Irish 20 in four plays. From there, Jordan connected on a 37-yard field goal with two seconds on the clock to give the Trojans a 27-25 win. (The kick was from nearly the same spot that Jordan won the 1977 UCLA game with two seconds on the clock). Robinson later said it was the greatest football game he'd ever seen.
"We had a veteran unit on offense and we huddled up and knew we only had to drive about 50 or 60 yards to put Frank in field goal position," McDonald said. "The first pass went to Vic Rachshani. My next pass hit a Notre Dame lineman and ricocheted back toward me. The whole Notre Dame bench emptied because they thought it was a fumble and that they had won. But we came back the next play and I hit Calvin Sweeney on a deep crossing pattern and then Charles White ran off tackle to set up the field goal. It was the most emotional game I was ever involved in."
USC finished the regular season with a 21-5 win at Hawai'i, spotting the Rainbows a 3-0 lead before a White touchdown run put the Trojans ahead 7-3. Hawai'i closed to 7-5 in the fourth quarter thanks to a safety, but a Rakhshani scoring reception and a Gray interception return for a touchdown ended all thoughts of an upset.
Still ranked No. 3, USC squared off against No. 5 Michigan in the Rose Bowl. USC opened the scoring with a 9-yard pass from McDonald to Brenner in the first quarter. After a Wolverine field goal, White scored from three yards out and Jordan nailed a 35-yard field goal, giving USC a 17-3 halftime lead. Michigan got to within 17-10 in the third quarter, but that's where the score stayed as the Trojans completed their national championship season.
A handful of coaches from that Trojan team went on to some fame. Assistant coach Norv Turner is now the head coach of the Washington Redskins. Fellow assistant coach Bob Toledo is now the head coach of crosstown rival UCLA. And then there's third-year quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett, who is now looking to replicate as USC's head coach what he helped accomplish as an assistant two decades ago.
USC won its first ever national championship in 1928, finishing 9-0-1 in Howard Jones' fourth year as head coach of the Trojans.
The Trojans opened the 1928 campaign with wins over Utah State, Oregon State and St. Mary's. USC next faced California in Berkeley and battled the Golden Bears to a scoreless tie, the only blemish on an otherwise perfect season.
USC rebounded by shutting out Occidental and Stanford before posting wins over Arizona, Washington State and Idaho. It finished the season with a 27-14 win over Notre Dame, its first-ever victory over the Fighting Irish in only the schools' third meeting.
The Trojans were slated to appear in their second Rose Bowl but declined the bid (California went instead and lost to Georgia Tech).
Jesse Hibbs served as team captain for the 1928 season and Don Williams led the team in rushing with 681 yards.
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