In 1996, on November 23rd, however, USC was 5-5 and UCLA was 4-6, and both would be home for the holidays.
There was little to play for on that late-fall afternoon. Neither team was bowling, both teams were coming off losses, USC to Stanford and UCLA to Arizona.
All that was at stake was pride.
And the streak.
UCLA had won the previous five games against USC, but this was one of their weaker teams, a Bruin squad still trying to find themselves under Toledo.
A UCLA team that could look so good for one half, then look so bad the next.
It was a team with a struggling sophomore quarterback, who'd been so up-and-down that Toledo openly talked about replacing him – a quarterback who just a few weeks before against Stanford engineered one of the worst-looking two-minute drills in the history of football, which resulted in a raining of boos in the Rose Bowl.
So with just a shade over 80,000 people in the Rose Bowl that day, two mediocre teams would play for, well, not much.
And when those fans left the Arroyo Seco that afternoon, they had witnessed one of the most amazing comebacks, really, the most amazing comeback, in the history of the rivalry.
For three quarters, it was Murphy's Law for the Bruins. Everything that could go wrong did.
USC jumped out to a 10-lead, and then, in what had been seen way too many times that year, Cade McNown made an inexplicably dumb pass, while under pressure, and Sammie Knight would pick it off, and return it 74 yards for a touchdown. It was 17-0 Trojans, early in the second quarter.
McNown would score on the ensuing drive, but USC would get more points on the board. R. Jay Soward, who would loom large in the game, scored on a 60-yard touchdown pass from Brad Otton.
The Trojans were up 24-7 at the half. The first small wave of UCLA fans grabbed their seat cushions and headed for the exits. The streak would likely come to an end that day.
McNown would get UCLA on the board first in the second half, a 52-yard touchdown pass to Danny Farmer pulling them within 10.
But then the Trojans scored again. 31-14, USC.
The next smaller batch of UCLA fans scooped up their lemonades and kettle corn, ready to beat the traffic that would follow. Surely, the streak was over.
UCLA scored again, McNown running for 10-yards. But what did it matter? It was still 31-21, and USC's offense was scoring at will.
Then came the break for UCLA. Weldon Forde crushed Otton, injuring his ribs in the process.
Could UCLA capitalize?
The offense did nothing, and gave it right back to USC.
Then came the dagger. Or in USC's case, a sword. Matt Koffler, who replaced Brad Otton, found Soward streaking up the sideline. Kusanti Abdul-Salaam, who would also loom large in this game, slipped, and Koffler had all the time in the world to find Soward. The precocious freshman was gone, a 78-yard touchdown pass. A 38-21 Trojan lead with 11 minutes left. No Otton? No problem.
Another batch of Bruin fans were spilling out, their arms tired from waving the 12th-Bruin towels.
Had cell phones been prominent then, probably more people would have left. Text messages to friends would have meant no need to wait until after the game to meet, fans could leave right then and there. The section our group of three was in had more buzz being about "should we leave" rather than "any chance the Bruins have a comeback in them?"
McNown then drove the Bruins down the field. And if everything that could go wrong hadn't already, it would surely happen on this drive.
A touchdown pass from McNown to Jimmy McElroy, with McElroy emphatically pointing to the part of the end zone he was insistent he got his foot in, was waved off. Wouldn't have mattered anyway. There was a flag on UCLA.
Bjorn Merten, the rollercoaster ride of a kicker, trotted on to the field for the most meaningless field goal in the rivalry's history. It was a 47-yarder, that in the grand scheme of things, wouldn't matter, because really, no way UCLA could come back from a 17-point deficit in under seven minutes.
Boos sprinkled from the crowd, frustration and anger, at essentially waving the white flag going for a field goal. Sure, you'd need a field goal down the line, but at that point, seven was a lot more than three, and that 17-point deficit didn't look much different if it were 14.
UCLA's Greg Andrasick had a beautiful kickoff, a kick that gave the Trojans poor field position, leading to USC struggling in their possession and having to punt.
UCLA took over and, in just nine plays, McNown suddenly looked like the greatest quarterback in history, getting the Bruins to the one-yard line, where freshman Keith Brown, who'd played second fiddle to Skip Hicks all year, cut the lead to 38-31.
With just 2:49 left, USC set up its hands team for the kickoff. UCLA, hoping for a beneficial bounce, went for an onside kick, but Ryan Roques needed to be taller, with the ball sailing over his outstretched arms and out of bounds, Trojan ball. UCLA's chances of tying were over. All USC needed to do was run out the clock. A couple of plays resulted in a first down, hope appeared loss. UCLA used a timeout.
During the time out, Trojan head coach John Rob inson grabbed LaVale Woods, telling him to get in at running back for USC. His final words? "Hold on to the ball."
UCLA assistant Terry Tumey put a hobbling Danjuan Magee in for the final drive. Magee had his knee drained that week, and was limping around the field for three hours, his impact non-existent all game.
I had leaned over to my buddy, God's honest truth, and said during the time out: "Wouldn't it be crazy if USC fumbled the snap right here?"
My buddy laughed. "Ain't gonna happen."
He was right.
Koffler took the snap, handed the ball to Woods, who would assuredly get more yards against a tired Bruin defense.
Magee broke into the backfield, though, and got enough of Woods, and enough of the ball, to have it pop out. The roar of the Bruin crowd, hushed in a second by the flawless snap, was replaced by 50,000 gasps, shrieks and open mouths, pointing to the loose (fully-inflated) ball, lying on the Rose Bowl turf.
Almost 10 minutes before, Abdul-Salaam saw nothing but butt cheeks and elbows as Soward dusted him. But Abdul Salaam, now, scooped up the fumble to make one of the most famous fumble recoveries in Bruin history.
The Bruins had life.
The slumping southpaw, who was maddening in his inconsistency, refreshing in his candor and toughness, but underwhelming in the clutch, would then have one drive that arguably launched the legend.
McNown would hit McElroy on a slant for 17-yards. First down at the Trojan 39. A completion to Jamal Clark put the ball at the Trojan 34.
With the clock running, the crowd panicking, Rodney Lee, who somehow, someway, found himself on the field, got open. McNown, as he would do for most of 1997 and 1998, would find the open receiver. A beautifully placed ball on the sideline, and Lee, who had a grand total of four catches for 27 yards in that season previous to this moment, dove, grasped the ball, tucked it, got down in bounds and tumbled out.
Bruin ball at the Trojan 11.
And the maddening McNown, who looked poised the pass before, almost then got picked off, on a poor decision trying to force it to Farmer.
Al Borges still had the USC defense on its heels. The Trojans were expecting a pass, dropping guys into coverage. So Borges naturally decided to hand the ball off to Hicks.
And in one of the most perfectly-blocked, perfectly-executed runs up the middle, Hicks marched into the end zone.
Bjorn Merten, who had kicked the "meaningless field goal" just 5:30 before, would need to make the most important PAT of his life.
Chris Rubio, the UCLA longsnapper, put both of his hands on the ball, ready to snap it.
"The key moment I remember for me was when I was snapping to tie the game and being upside down and seeing the scoreboard," said Rubio. "I had been flawless all my career and I just remember thinking 'not now,' and luckily it was a great snap."
Kevin Walker would get the hold down. Merten would knock it through.
Tie game, 39 seconds left.
But USC wouldn't go away.
A 39-yard pass and then a questionable pass interference got USC into field goal range. With just seconds left on the clock, Adam Abrams would kick himself into Trojan lore.
Instead, he would kick it into the Bruins' line.
Not just any overtime, though. The first overtime in the history of the rivalry.
UCLA's offense was rolling, USC's defense was scuffling.
So of course, it was USC who could move the ball in the first overtime, getting inside the 10, Abrams getting the field goal that had eluded him, from 25-yards out.
41-38 Trojans. UCLA ball.
For everything that Skip Hicks did that day, it was almost for naught.
The first play of the Bruins' overtime, Hicks dropped the ball. Fortunately for him, he fell on it. But already, UCLA was in the hole offensively.
Two more plays, and all UCLA could do was get to the 23-yard line.
Merten had already kicked a 47-yard field goal and the game-tying PAT. Now he'd need that cool, calm demeanor he had as a freshman, which would betray him for much of the rest of his career, to tie the game. To keep the streak alive.
Rubio leaned down again, fired off a perfect snap, the hold was down, Merten was true.
41-41. Second overtime coming up, Bruin ball.
The UCLA offense, which was so good in their last two drives of the game, but so horrid on their first possession in overtime, was back on the field.
McNown went under center. He took the snap, and handed it off to Hicks. For an instant, it looked like Hicks would be stopped at the line of scrimmage. It was quiet in the Rose Bowl, save the two end zones.
But from among the scrum, out popped Hicks, who someway, somehow, got through the line, bounced it outside, and was gone.
The Rose Bowl exploded.
Merten knocked the PAT through. 48-41.
For the first time all day, UCLA had the lead. For the first time all day, the Bruins had hope.
For the third time all day, UCLA would need the stop of their life.
"We hadn't lost to USC since I was there so we were definitely a little thrown by the score," said Rubio. "But it was almost like we knew we had the ability to win as long as the clock didn't run out."
In overtime, there are no clocks. In overtime, there isn't room for choking.
And Soward, who had torched the Bruin secondary for 260 yards and three touchdowns on just six receptions, would make one of the most unclutch plays of his career.
Back track a bit. After Soward had torched Abdul-Salaam, he looked into the TV cameras, and matter-of-factly said "Five more years? It ends today! It ends today." Then he did the throat-slash.
After two plays didn't bring up much, USC called a timeout.
Third down for USC, about four yards to go.
Koffler had Soward wide open for a first down. Shaun Williams, the excellent Bruin safety, who would be a first team all-American a year later, was late getting to Soward.
But a funny thing happened after the throat slash.
The hands that so audaciously and mockingly waved the five fingers, that so brazenly slashed the throat, would ultimately be Soward's downfall.
Soward dropped the ball.
Should have saved the hands for catching passes, not for slashing throats.
By this point, the Rose Bowl was at a feverish pitch.
4th down, USC still needing just a few yards for a first down, and renewed life.
Koffler dropped back to pass.
Phillip Ward, who always seemed to have the game of his life when the opponent was wearing Cardinal and Gold, flew in from the edge, a staple in the Rocky Long defense. A half-hearted attempt at blocking Ward didn't faze him. He had Koffler in his grasp.
The rocking Rose Bowl, louder than it had been at any point on that day, probably louder than it had been at any point since Nkosi Littleton broke up the two-point attempt from Rob Johnson four years before, had gone silent.
The ball floated into the air.
Standing back there, all alone, eyes focused on the ball, was Anthony Cobbs. In what was probably the slowest motion situation that Cobbs has ever been in, the ball started its downward descent.
The crowd started to perk up, the ball still floating.
The ball landed in Cobbs' hands. The noise echoed throughout the San Gabriel Mountains.
Comeback complete. The day that Cade McNown went from frustrating and frightening to famous.
A meaningless game four hours before had become one of the most amazing wins in Bruin history.
The streak was still alive.
"It was the most emotion I have ever experienced in a game," Rubio would say. "It was beyond draining."
After what seemed like an hour after the game, the Bruin players celebrating on the field, Geoff Strand foolishly and unsuccessfully trying to chase down Jimmy McElroy, who gallivanted around the Rose Bowl with the "UCLA Alumni" flag, not wanting to give it up, not letting Strand chase him down, the Rose Bowl was still rocking.
Eventually the players retreated to their locker room to celebrate.
Sixteen years later, Rubio vividly remembers the emotion in the locker room.
"It was a combination of shock, relief and exuberance," said Rubio. "It was almost like you could tell it would be a game that would be discussed forever."
And 16 years after that thought-to-be-meaningless game ended, Rubio knows he played a small, yet large role, in a game he still watches and reminisces about. A game that still leaves his stomach in knots. A game that makes him anxious.
"I still think it was the best (game)," said Rubio. "And It was an epic comeback combined with a rivalry game. You don't get better than that. I know many people left. I still get nervous watching it when they show it. I think there is no way we can come back. And of course we do. Amazing."