We’re down to our final four in the quest to name the best USC Trojans football game of all time. WeAreSC readers selected finalists in the Notre Dame, UCLA, Rose Bowl and “Other” brackets and now they go head-to-head.
It was smooth sailing into the final four for the 1967 USC – UCLA game, as the 21-20 win for the Trojans earned nearly 80% of the vote in its previous win. The same can be said for the 2017 Rose Bowl, as the Trojans last-second win against Penn State took down the 1975 Rose Bowl and the comeback over Ohio State. And USC’s national championship win in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma easily defeated the Trojans last-minute goal line stand against Cal earlier in that same season.
Where things got interesting was in the Notre Dame bracket, where the 1974 epic comeback defeated the 2005 version by just nine votes, and was tied at multiple points late in the voting process. It’s a true indication that both games are thought by many to be the greatest games in USC history.
With that said, here are the final two matchups.
2005 USC – Oklahoma
Oklahoma fans knew it would be a blowout. They couldn’t have been more right and more wrong at the same time.
In a BCS Championship Orange Bowl matchup, the No. 1 USC Trojans absolutely obliterated the No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners, 55-19.
Was this objectively a great, competitive game? Absolutely not. Does it belong on this list? Absolutely yes.
There are few 15-minute periods USC fans have enjoyed in the history of Trojan football more than the second quarter of this game, when the Trojans took a 14-7 lead and stretched it into a 38-10 halftime lead that was pure dominance.
USC safety Jason Leach picked off Oklahoma quarterback Jason White and the Trojans quickly capitalized with a 54-yard touchdown pass from Matt Leinart to Dwayne Jarrett. USC cornerback Eric Wright then picked off White and Leinart found Steve Smith for a five-yard score. Smith scored again as he hauled in a 33-yard touchdown pass while falling to the ground for the second of the Trojans’ highlight-reel touchdowns–tight end Dominique Byrd got the Trojans on the board with a spinning, one-handed touchdown grab in the first quarter.
The second half was a victory lap for the Trojans, as USC ran the lead to 55-10 before settling for a 55-19 win and a national championship.
USC racked up 525 total yards, forced five turnovers and helped Trojan fans to a 60-minute celebration in what certainly qualifies as a great game from a USC fan’s perspective.
1974 USC – Notre Dame
Defending national champion Notre Dame took a 24-0 lead late into the second quarter, when USC quarterback Pat Haden hit tailback Anthony Davis on a swing pass for a touchdown with only a few seconds left in the half.
And somehow, some way, down 24-6 at halftime, the route was on.
Davis was the next Trojan to touch the ball, gathering the Notre Dame second-half kickoff two yards deep in the endzone. Following a wall of blockers, Davis made one man miss at the 18-yard line, veered toward the left sideline, and was gone.
Davis scored on a six-yard run on the following USC drive and just 3:25 into the third quarter, USC had cut the Notre Dame lead to 24-19.
A Kevin Bruce fumble recovery and a couple passes from Haden to wide receiver J.K. McKay led to another Davis short touchdown run. And the two-point conversion gave USC a 27-24 lead just 6:23 into the third quarter. And it Just. Never. Stopped.
USC used a 56-yard punt return to set up a Haden-to-McKay touchdown. Then a Charles Phillips interception led to another Haden-to-McKay touchdown as USC went up 41-24 at the end of the third quarter.
Bruce jumped on his second fumble recovery early in the fourth quarter and Haden hit wide receiver Shelton Diggs for a 16-yard touchdown. Phillips picked off his third pass of the game and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown, traveling the final 30 yards with the ball aloft in celebration. And in 17 minutes of game time, USC had scored 55 points, turning a rout into a rout, and giving the Trojans arguably the greatest game in the history of the program.
1967 USC – UCLA
In 1967, the USC – UCLA game had as much–and probably much more–at stake than any game in this long rivalry. The Trojans and Bruins spent the entire year toward or at the top of the national poll. Entering this game, UCLA was No. 1 and USC was No. 2 in the coaches poll (No. 4 in the AP poll), the winner would claim the AAWU and national championships and the Rose Bowl berth, and UCLA (Gary Beban) and USC (O.J. Simpson) had players that would finish Nos. 1 and 2 in the Heisman Trophy voting.
And then the game lived up to the hype, regularly featuring on every “Game of the Century” list.
UCLA jumped out to a 7-0 lead but USC tied it at 7 on an interception return touchdown by Pat Chashman, who read a throwback to the tailback, jumped in front and took it more than 50 yards for the score. A 52-yard end-around run by Earl McCullouch eventually set up an O.J. Simpson touchdown run, where he broke at least four tackles and gave USC a 14-7 lead at halftime.
Beban hit wide receiver George Farmer for a deep touchdown in the third quarter to tie the game at 14.
In the fourth quarter, the Bruins took advantage of an interception as Beban threw for a touchdown pass to give UCLA a 20-14 lead with 11:40 left in the game. But the ensuing extra point was tipped and sent wide by USC’s 6-foot-8 Bill Hayhoe, who had already blocked two previous field goal attempts in the game.
Then, with 10:38 left in the game, USC quarterback Toby Page called “23 blast,” on third-and-seven, and Simpson went 64 yards on one of college football’s greatest and most important runs.
The USC defense swarmed Beban for the rest of the game, resulting in several sacks. UCLA never threatened again. Fittingly, the game ended on another USC sack, and the Trojans came away with the 21-20 win.
Though that 1967 USC team was coming off a 3-0 loss at Oregon State heading into the UCLA matchup, the win over the Bruins combined with a win over Indiana in the Rose Bowl earned the Trojans a national championship.
2017 USC – Penn State
While that 1974 battle turned into a one-way blowout, the 2017 Rose Bowl was a true shootout all the way through.
USC had bounced back from a 1-3 start to the season to grab a Rose Bowl berth, while Penn State registered as one of the hottest teams in the nation as well, winning 9-straight after starting the season 2-2.
USC recorded interceptions on Penn State’s first two possessions and then forced two punts, but could only take a 13-0 lead. From that point, the teams traded touchdowns on five-consecutive drives and when USC’s offense started to sputter, Penn State’s did not. The Nittany Lions scored touchdowns on four-consecutive plays, and on seven-consecutive drives to take a 49-35 lead with 1:55 left in the third quarter.
A Ronald Jones short touchdown run with 8:15 left cut the Penn State lead to seven, and a massive USC defensive stand with roughly two minutes to play forced Penn State to punt.
USC quarterback Sam Darnold took over at his own 20-yard line with 1:50 left and threw the ball five times. The first two went for first downs, the next two resulted in defensive pass interference penalties, and the fifth was an absolute dart to wide receiver Deontay Burnett for a 27-yard touchdown to tie the game with 1:20 left to play. And somehow itwas still far from over.
Penn State went for the win, and USC safety Leon McQuay III had two opportunities for interceptions. He grabbed the second and returned it 32 yards to help set up a USC field goal attempt, which USC kicker Matt Boermeester nailed from 46 yards as time expired to give USC the 52-49 win.
The 101 total points set a Rose Bowl record at the time, Darnold set Rose Bowl records with five passing touchdowns and 473 yards of total offense, and the Trojans’ 14-point 4th-quarter comeback is also a Rose Bowl record.