If anybody out there was wondering whatever happened to USC's proud football tradition, be advised that it hasn't moved to Westwood after all. Trojan tradition is alive and well. It just doesn't play tailback anymore. The storied Trojan runners of yesteryear have become fat-cat alumni, and three of the most illustrious—Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson and Anthony Davis—were among the 92,516 spectators who packed the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday as Southern Cal proved that a quarterback, a wide receiver, a safety and, maybe, a coach can win football games too. And win the Trojans did, 17-13 over favored UCLA. That tied the Bruins for the Pac-10 championship with a 7-1 record—UCLA was 9-2 overall, USC 8-3—and earned Southern Cal the Rose Bowl and a rematch with Michigan State, which beat the Trojans 27-13 in the season opener.
Of the many USC contributors, none was more instrumental than Rodney Peete, the junior quarterback. Peete is an impressive young man, but he wasn't supposed to be 23 of 35 for 304 yards and two touchdowns' worth of impressive against what many people had called the quickest defense in the nation. The consensus had been that by the fourth quarter, Rodney would be getting no respect. So all Peete did was go out and play his game, snare a Rose Bowl berth and, when it was over, act as though he wasn't even surprised by it all. Peete is too good to have just been born in the ordinary way. Obviously, somebody from the USC film school must have dreamed him up.
To be sure, Peete did have some help. "Oh, I'll be throwing it up there," he had predicted on Friday. "I have the confidence our receivers will go up and get it." And Erik Affholter, a 6'1", 190-pound junior wide receiver who received his USC scholarship as a kicker, came through, going up and getting it all day. He would finish the game with nine catches for 151 yards.
One of those grabs was the big one. With 7:59 left in the game, the Trojans were down 13-10. Peete looked across the huddle at Affholter and called, "529 Throwback." "Erik had been making some great catches, catches your average receiver couldn't make," said Peete. "The coverage put Erik in a one-on-one situation, so I just put it up there and let him make the play."
Peete fired a 33-yard pass high to the back corner of the end zone. "There really wasn't too much to think about," said Affholter after the game. "It was actually a bad pattern, to tell you the truth. But Rodney just put it in a perfect spot."
Affholter was behind the Bruin defender, Marcus Turner. Affholter bobbled the ball momentarily and fell out of the end zone, but the officials ruled that he had possession with the requisite one foot inbounds.
"We were supposed to have no chance—none," said USC safety Mark Carrier, who intercepted two of Bruin quarterback Troy Aikman's passes. Carrier's second interception was at UCLA's 38-yard line with about a minute left. "They were bigger, faster, stronger," said Carrier. "But we had Rodney."
Indeed, who else but Peete could suffer through what he called "the worst half of football in my life" and, with 0:14 left in that half and the score 10-0 UCLA, throw an end zone interception to Bruin strong safety Eric Turner, then sprint 80 yards to run down Turner and prevent a UCLA touchdown. "I've never had an interception returned on me in my life," said Peete. "I wasn't about to let it happen now. I knew I had to come out and play the best second half of my life."
"That was the key play of the first half," said Larry Smith, who is in his first year as coach at USC. "Without that, I don't think I could have acted like I did at halftime."
And how had Smith acted in the locker room at halftime? Peete and the rest of the Trojans said Smith was "jumping up and down" as he yelled, "They can't keep us out of the end zone." Smith denied having behaved so demonstratively. Another USC tradition has it that the school's football coaches are cool customers. The presence of former USC coach John McKay at the game was pressure enough for Smith, but the Trojan band even spelled out McKay's name as part of their halftime show. And McKay had never let 'em see him sweat, had he?