by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

For most of our publishing years at TGS, the college football regular season has ended with a bang when the vast majority of the most-heated traditional rivalries would take place on the same late-November weekend, usually just before Thanksgiving. The fun would annually continue into Thanksgiving week when a handful of other longtime hostilities would be renewed. But changes in the college scheduling over the years have somewhat muted the old "rivalry week" phenomenon. Instead, and a more than a bit regrettably, conference realignments have ended some of those rivalries entirely (such as Texas-Texas A&M and Nebraska-Oklahoma), while altered scheduling has moved some of those traditional bloodbaths away from late November. And the Thanksgiving week schedule has turned into one of the heaviest of the entire season, with all sorts of games (many not featuring traditional rivals) after presenting a far-lighter slate of games for decades.

Handicapping-wise, rivalry games have often provided discernible edges, with many pronounced series trends. Through the years, many of those angles have highlighted successes of the underdog sides. And while their pointspread performance has fluctuated in recent years, for a long while the underdog teams in these most-bitter of rivalries often provided good value. Indeed, college football history is replete with some of the most memorable upsets taking place in these rivalry games. While those trends have somewhat waned in recent years, the rationale for underdogs to perform well in rivalry games remains constant, and dogs have often risen their collective heads in past late-November periods. (We suggest consulting with TGS's companion publication, The Gold Sheet EXTRA!!!, which highlights such series trends every week in its Technician's Corner feature; when warranted, mention of those trends are also noted in the weekly TGS College Analysis and well as the Looking for an Angle feature.)

The biggest rivalry games also recall some great memories for us at TGS. As we have always believed the essence of college football is displayed at the end of every season when the traditional rivalries take place. Some of our fondest recollections in our six decades of publishing are of the late '60s and early '70s, when for many years the highlight of rivalry week would be ABC-TV doubleheaders featuring the Ohio State-Michigan showdown in the Big Ten and the USC-UCLA battle in the old AAWU/Pac-8/Pac-10.

Our past summer college football "Retrospective" pieces have often highlighted the best of those gridiron rivalries; two summers ago, we devoted an entire feature to the decade of great Ohio State-Michigan battles and their "ten-year war" in the Big Ten between 1968-78. But as the years have passed, we have come to regard our up-close-and-personal vantage point of the unique Los Angeles intra-city conflict between Southern Cal and UCLA, a rivalry like few others in college football because of the proximity of the schools to one another, as something truly special. (Only the ACC's Duke-North Carolina, with campuses roughly 8 miles apart, could approximate the mere 12 or so miles that separate the UCLA campus in tony Westwood and USC campus close to Downtown L.A.) And with the Bruins and Trojans due to exchange their annual pleasantries this Saturday as this season's rivalry weeks commence, we thought it appropriate to reminisce about this most-special of matchups.

While USC and UCLA have had battles with championship implications back to the early 1940s, we have always believed the real boiling point of the rivalry came in the period between 1965-70, when coaches John McKay (SC) and Tommy Prothro (UCLA) elevated the contests to a high-stakes gridiron chess match between two of the best coaches of their generation. The contrasts in style between McKay and Prothro and their teams elevated their duels to high drama. Regrettably, we only had six seasons to enjoy these masters match wits, as Prothro would leave UCLA for the NFL L.A. Rams in 1971. But the mark he left in the rivalry with McKay and USC would be indelibly marked in the minds of anyone privileged enough to watch their classic battles that often more resembled an upheaval of nature than a mere gridiron clash.

While there are a few books devoted solely to the USC-UCLA rivalry, none specifically focuses upon the McKay-Prothro years, a project we might undertake some day soon.

When space permits, perhaps in an upcoming summer Pac-12 Retrospective piece, we will go into more detail about some of the more-celebrated games of the McKay vs. Prothro rivalry, specifically the epic 1965 and '67 games. A few years ago, while working on another editorial project, we ran down UCLA's Heisman-winning QB of the era who was involved in both of those games, Gary Beban, in his Chicago office, and became spellbound by some of Beban's recollections. Which, to be fair, were a tad biased toward his coach Prothro and the Bruins. Though no one ever doubted Beban's underlying point about the rivalry. "They (USC) were a lot bigger, a lot stronger, and a lot faster than us," Beban said. "We really should not have been able to compete with them, but Tommy Prothro was a genius." Which was no exaggeration, as Prothro, among other things, was a championship bridge player, a chess player, as well as being a wealthy man from outside-football interests that included a soft-drink distributorship in his native Tennessee. Prothro's smarts were also said to be a major irritant to rival McKay, who would chafe whenever it would be mentioned that he had been outcoached by Prothro, especially after the 1965 and '66 renewals, both won by the Bruins, the former on two late, long TD passes from Beban that delivered a shock 20-16 upset and a Rose Bowl berth, and then minus an injured Beban in '66, when UCLA pulled another surprise, 14-7, behind backup QB Norman Dow. (When the dust settled on the McKay vs. Prothro years, the ledger would fittingly stand at 3 wins apiece.)

Of course, the '67 game, with its national title implications and featuring top Heisman candidates Beban and OJ Simpson, is regarded by most as the high-water mark of the rivalry. It was also a great satisfaction to McKay, a 21-20 winner in that classic, as he no longer had to hear about Prothro having his number. But we have long recalled a couple of other McKay-Prothro battles as the real essence of the rivalry.

This past summer, as we reviewed OJ's memorable 1968 Heisman year in our Pac-12 Retrospective, we saved space to discuss that season's SC-UCLA game, one overlooked by historians. But not by us at TGS, as the bells and whistles of the best rivalries were never on better display.

The '68 battle for Los Angeles, however, would not be like the epic 1967 clash. While USC had endured several close calls in '68, it still entered the UCLA game undefeated and ranked No. 1, with OJ winging toward the Heisman. Meanwhile, the-post Beban Bruins had been decimated by injuries, and Prothro's only losing UCLA team would limp into the Coliseum with a 3-6 record. Though the Bruins would be the designated home team for the game and occupy the north side of the stadium reserved for host teams at the Coliseum.

And would SC possibly be flat for UCLA after a titanic revenge battle for the Rose Bowl vs. Oregon State the previous week? When asked, McKay adroitly fielded that one on the first hop. "We'd like to be national champions," the Irishman said softly, "and you can't do that without being city champions."

There was something surreal about the Coliseum that afternoon, as an early-arriving fog combined with a bad case of LA smog would create a hazy glow at the 3 PM kickoff that deepened as the game moved into early evening. Indeed, the arriving fog helped to create an eerie San Francisco-like feel to the proceedings. Typical of the '68 Trojans, however, they would again find themselves backed up against a wall, even vs. a reeling, 13 1/2-point underdog UCLA, which jumped to an early 3-0 lead on a field goal by the goat of the '67 game, PK Zenon Andrusyshyn. Through the rest of the first half, SC could not shake a dogged Bruin team that had been blasted by Cal, Tennessee, and Oregon State, allowing a whopping 42 ppg in those three losses. That evening, however, Prothro was masterfully coaxing a kamikaze effort out of his depleted troops. Early in the 2nd Q, UCLA soph HB Mickey Cureton electrified the Coliseum with a weaving 75-yard punt return deep into SC territory that preceded his 1-yard TD blast on 4th down to put UCLA up, 10-7. An OJ-fueled drive put SC up 14-10 at the half, but this was not turning into the picnic afternoon/evening that most SC fans had envisioned.

Indeed, Trojan fans were getting the same nervous feeling they had experienced much of the season. Here we go...again.

Though SC moved to a 21-10 edge in the 3rd Q on a short run by FB Dan Scott, the first non-OJ rushing TD of the season for the Trojans, the lead never felt safe, especially when the outmanned Bruins cut the deficit to 21-16 early in the 4th Q on a TD drive engineered by soph QB Jim Nader, who had replaced starter Bill Bolden (as was often the case with UCLA that season), with the slippery HB Cureton scoring on a 9-yard dash. After forcing SC to punt, and with the Coliseum throng becoming louder with each successive down, Nader was at it again, firing up another drive that inexorably moved deep into Trojan territory and threatened to derail SC's unbeaten streak and title hopes.

As evening descended upon the Coliseum, the huge saucer rocking with deafening noise accompanying the unfolding drama, and the lights fighting to illuminate the field through the fog, Nader appeared ready to score the go-ahead TD on a 3rd-down sweep before slipping at the one-yard line as he angled for the end zone flag. With one more chance to grab the lead and shake college football '68 to its foundation, and No. 1 holding on for dear life, Nader rolled left and lofted a short pass...just beyond the fingers of wingback Gwen Cooper, and the Trojans, temporarily at least, had dodged another bullet!

SC was not out of danger yet and was soon forced to punt the ball back to UCLA. But the Trojan defense would save the day, as Nader tried one more drive to pull the upset. Only this time, near midfield, he was intercepted by SC LB Jim Snow. After heroically limiting OJ, the smaller, tired Bruin defense was by then dangerously low on fuel. The Trojans gulped 47 yards to the Bruin end zone on three OJ runs, the last for 4 yards and a TD, to finally seal the 28-16 win. When the dust (or fog) settled, OJ had carried 40 times for 205 yards.

"Only 40 carries?," McKay said of Simpson afterward. "OJ can dance tonight."

With all due respect to the historical significance of the Beban-O.J. showdown in 1967, and the unexpected, pulsating drama of the '68 renewakll, we at TGS have always felt that it was the 1969 game that might have been the greatest of them all in the crosstown rivalry. The Trojans had survived another series of thrill rides, while Prothro's Bruins had recovered smartly from the injury-plagued 3-7 mess in 1968 behind juco (Long Beach City College) transfer QB Dennis Dummit, and the best UCLA stop unit since the mid ’50s, having shut out three teams that season entering the SC game.  Both teams entered the showdown with 8-0-1 records (SC's lone blemish a 14-14 mid-October tie at Notre Dame, and UCLA's a 20-20 draw the following week at Stanford).

By kickoff time that November 22, however, all also knew the polls were due for a shakeup the next week after top-ranked Ohio State had been upset by Bo Schembechler’s Michigan earlier in the day. That result catapulted the Wolverines, and not Mike Phipps’ Purdue (remember, the Buckeyes were banned by the Big Ten's draconian no-repeat rule of the day), as the Big Ten rep for the upcoming Rose Bowl. Suddenly, a gaggle of teams, including the 5th-ranked Trojans and 6th-ranked Bruins, were very much in the mix for the national title.

The college football world was spellbound for USC-UCLA, as the game kicked off at the odd hour of 3 PM Pacific time (as it had the previous year in 1968), televised nationally by ABC, which made sure its top announce team of Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson were on hand at the L.A. Coliseum (Bill Flemming and Lee Grosscup were behind the ABC microphones for Buckeyes-Wolverines at Ann Arbor earlier that day). And between the two games, ABC's Wide World of Sports televised, live via satellite, the middleweight title fight from the Palazzo Dello Sport in Rome, where Nino Benvenuti defended his title with a dramatic 11th-round knockout of Luis Rodriguez, action that was described by none other than Howard Cosell.

UCLA drew first blood on its opening possession, as the clever Prothro fooled the SC defense when HB Greg Jones lofted a 41-yard option pass TD to wideout George Farmer, staking the Bruins to a 6-0 lead. With no confidence in PK Zenon Andrusyshyn, Prothro opted to go for a two-point conversion, but Dummit’s pass was tipped away by DE Charlie Weaver.

SC's NFL-sized defensive front, nicknamed "The Wild Bunch," would soon begin to exert its will on the game, which quickly turned into a defensive war for the ages. Dummit was pressured incessantly, and under duress midway in the 2nd Q, threw a pick deep in his own territory to Trojan LB Jimmy Gunn, whose TD return was called back due to a clip. But SC's offense, not moving much itself, was nonetheless set up deep in Bruin territory, and a subsequent 12-yard TD run by RB Clarence Davis gave Troy a 7-6 halftime lead.

The Wild Bunch was now dominating the action. All season it hadn't let anybody's offense push it around, and UCLA’s potent attack, scoring scoring better than 35 ppg, wasn’t going to, either. Throughout the afternoon and creeping evening hours, the Wild Bunch bounced Dummit around the Coliseum floor like a double dribble, smothering him for loss after loss and forcing him to throw the football upward, downward and sideways. They kept the Bruins back in their own end of the field, and it seemed UCLA would never get out.

The Wild Bunch would pound Dummit and then help him up, and remind him what was coming next. “Come on, get up so we can hit you again," would say DE Weaver, who later added that ”we hoped to discourage him (Dummit) somewhat. And I think we did. By the middle of the third quarter I thought he began to panic. He’d drop back and start looking for us instead of his receivers, and he’d get rid of it before he wanted to."

For most of a brutal second half, perhaps the most-physical thirty minutes of any USC-UCLA game in history, that 7-6 lead looked as if it would stand. As afternoon turned to dusk, and then evening, with bits of fog rolling in, Dummit would have his own lights turned out by the Wild Bunch, which played ping-pong with the Bruin QB, sacking him nine times and forcing five picks. Weaver, in one famous play, knocked a scrambling Dummit into the air and backwards a few yards; Dummit has said he recalled nothing of the game afterward, although he courageously stayed in the fray.

Deep into the 4th Q, with under five minutes to play, Dummit, even after absorbing a tremendous beating, was nonetheless, perhaps reflexively by that point, still firing away. On the play after his ninth sack pushed the ball back to the UCLA 33, Dummit bravely hung tough in the face of the Wild Bunch and let fly a long bomb to WR and track star Brad Lyman, who made an over-the-shoulder catch and raced to the Trojan 10 for a dramatic 57-yard gain, putting the Bruin offense in business for the first time since early in the game. Three plays later, on third-down from the seven, the wobbly Dummit, remarkably standing his ground in the pocket despite facing more pressure, coolly and dramatically hit WR Gwen Cooper in traffic for the go-ahead TD to put the Bruins up, 12-7, with 3:08 to play. Importantly, UCLA missed another two-point conversion to keep the margin at five points.

SC was forced to answer to save its Rose Bowl hopes. To that point in the game, Trojan QB Jimmy Jones had completed all of one pass, as the best UCLA defense since the Red Sanders era and nicknamed the “Quiet Bunch” (in response to its more-flamboyant SC counterparts) had mostly shackled SC, too, while also holding potent Trojan RB Davis, among the nation's top rushers and who managed to score SC's first TD on one of his only successful carries of the late afternoon/evening, to a mere 37 YR.

But the Harrisburg, PA product Jones, as demonstrated in prior games, was full of magic that fall, began to move the Trojans into UCLA territory with three pass completions. Soon, however, he was faced with a 4th down from the Bruin 43, and his pass sailed far over the head of WR Sam Dickerson.

For an instant, the Rose Bowl bid seemed to belong to UCLA. The Bruin song girls, who had the best moves of the late afternoon and evening hours, and the yell leaders were ready to go back into their boogaloo chant, "We got the spirit and we got the soul!"

But as the ball sailed far over Dickerson, Bruin DB Danny Graham grabbed the Trojan wideout. Although the ball was uncatchable, rules of the day didn't account for that fact; if the ball was anywhere in the air and the receiver was hit, a referee could throw a flag for interference. Eventually, the rule would be changed, but not by 1969. Graham, unfortunately, was victimized, and the Trojans had new life with a first down on the UCLA 32.

The way that season was going for the Trojans, one sensed a dramatic ending, and Jones delivered, heaving his next pass deep into the right-back corner of the endzone, which Dickerson chased down as he was going out of bounds (right).

Touchdown?!?!? Yes!

Those were the days long before refs used video replays to confirm scores, so no review was in the cards to see if Dickerson's dragging left leg was beyond the boundary. The ABC-TV replays were inconclusive, but still-photo evidence would show that Dickerson had remarkably kept his right leg in bounds just as he caught the ball, and a split second before his left leg would land on the endline. The TD stood; SC led 14-12 with just 1:32 to play!

UCLA was not done yet, advancing to the SC 39 in the last minute, although we'll never know if Prothro would have given his spooked PK Andrusyshyn (who had kicked field goals as long as 52 yards in his college career) a chance to win the game, as the woozy Dummit was picked off on the sideline by that man who seeemd to make a lot of big plays in the Trojan secondary, DB Ty Hudson. The final score was 14-12 in SC's favor...ironically the same scoreline when the two faced off as unbeatens in 1952, seventeen years earlier! For the "Cardiac Kid" Trojans, it was also the 12th time in their last 20 games that they had rallied in the 4th Q for victory!

As for DB Graham, guilty of that crucial pass interference call, his postgame reaction summed up the feelings of the crestfallen Bruins. “I feel like my whole life just went down the drain,” said Graham, and perhaps Prothro’s best UCLA team would not even get to a bowl. It was said that Prothro lost his zest for the college game after that bitter loss; he would leave the Bruins for the NFL and the L.A. Rams after the subsequent 1970 season.

Instead, McKay's Trojans reached their fourth straight Rose Bowl and beat Michigan on New Year's Day, 10-3, finishing a remarkable 10-0-1 campaign.

Asked if all of the wild finishes from that season might cause him a heart attack, the clever McKay had a quick answer. "I've checked my heart," said the Irishman, "and I don't have one."

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