Ranking this fall's upcoming road trips got us to thinking: In the 13 seasons we've been able to cover USC football, how would we rank our top road games in that time.
Right away, we could eliminate one: the Sun Bowl in 2012, for starters. But this is about the highlights, of which there are many. And as much fun as it was for USC fans to know they weren't going to lose a game in the Coliseum, it was always much more exhilirating to head out on the road.
One small point here. That the USC Marching Band has the longest streak of traveling to road games of any band in the nation, that it will be in South Bend in full every other year and in Northern California at Stanford or Cal every year, also in full, and be well-represented at every other stop along the way matters maybe more than USC fans can know.
Having covered a number of programs where that's not the case, it was an unexpected tradition -- and always something for USC fans to look forward to on the road. It's not the norm.
So time to look at our Top 10 all-time road trips -- from 2001 on. We'll rank them by how great the game was, how much it mattered, how USC fans embraced it, enjoyed it and to this day still enthuse over it.
We'll start with No. 10 and work our way to No. 1. See if you agree. Or did we miss one of your favorites?
NO. 10 -- USC 28, OREGON STATE 20, 2004: Not the worst conditions ever for a football game, not for me anyway. I'd covered the Bengals' 59-below wind chill win over the San Diego Chargers in Cincinnati and nothing comes close. But this night in Cotvallis in the fog and cold that made it impossible to see from one side of the field to the other or to see the 36,412 fans from the field or much of the game from the press box was the weirdest night of football ever. And with USC down 13-0 in the second quarter, a real threat to a second straight national title. But thanks to Dominique Byrd's onehanded TD grab of a pass most couldn't even see, USC ran off 28 straight points and the Trojans were on their way to the Orange Bowl for a second time in three years.
NO. 9 -- USC 38, ARIZONA STATE 28, 2005: In as dramatic a three-week stretch as any Trojans team has played with the "Bush Push" game at Notre Dame in two weeks, top-ranked USC fell behind 21-3 at halftime in the blistering Tempe heat. But despite an injured Matt Leinart limping his way to the field after intermission, USC scored 21 unanswered points and 35 of the final 42 using a hurryup ground offense featuring Reggie Bush and LenDale White to fly by the 14th-ranked Sun Devils for USC's Pac-10 record 26th straight victory.
NO. 8 -- USC 40, COLORADO 3, 2002: This game -- actually two games tied for this spot in 2002 -- made things official for us. The Trojans were back. First, a Carson Palmer-led USC, ranked No. 17 after opening by beating Auburn at the Coliseum, laid waste to the No. 18 Buffs on a bright Saturday afternoon in Boulder and it was on, we were sure. USC was back. But we knew for sure later in the season on a visit to Eugene that saw the 15th-ranked Trojans rally for 30 straight points in the second half and a 44-33 win in front of 56,734, the largest crowd ever to watch a football game in the state of Oregon. After following up with romps over Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA and Notre Dame, the Trojans moved up to a No. 4 ranking and put themselves on the road to a matchup with Iowa in the Orange Bowl that made it clear how far and how fast the program had come in Year 2 of the PC Era.
NO. 7 -- USC 24, VIRGiNIA TECH 13, 2004: Lots of hype for this crosscountry trek to FedEx Stadium in Landover, Md., to open on the East Coast for the No. 1 Trojans in front of a hostile crowd of 91,665 as USC eventually lived up to its billing -- and the national media. It would preview a later trip three time zones away again -- to Florida -- for a much more important game for USC fans at the end of the season. Best memory of that trip: Getting to spend some time with Rod Dedeaux and watching how revered the Hall of Fame former Trojan baseball coach was when people greeted the USC party.
NO. 6 -- USC 18, OHIO STATE 15, 2009: In one of the most fun-filled and rewarding weekends we can recall, the third-ranked Trojans headed back to the Horseshoe to finish strong on a Stafon Johnson sweep after a final scoring drive led by Joe McKnight and freshman Matt Barkley to dispatch the eighth-ranked Buckeyes and silence a wild crowd of 106,033 in a fashion USC could not sustain for the season. But for one glorious Midwest day for Trojan fans, it was as good as it gets going on the road.
NO. 5 -- USC 38, OREGON 35, 2011: It surely felt good that cold night in the Northwest, taking it to the Phil Knight Nike NBA Superstar Convention on the sidelines as the Trojans simply outphysicaled the fourth-ranked Ducks for three quarters and then held on to win thanks to a missed field goal at the buzzer. It also made it obvious that USC team probably never should have lost earlier to Arizona State and Stanford and could have been looking at an unbeaten season despite the postseason probation. The downside was the resultant No.1 ranking for 2012 that came back to bite everyone involved with Kiffin & Co. But it was fun while it lasted just to hear how quiet Autzen can get on a night like that.
NO. 4 -- USC 38, IOWA 17, 2003: Down 10-7 and without Troy Polamalu, out with a reaction to a painkiller, a third-ranked USC team ripped off 31 straight points against an outmanned fifth-ranked Iowa team. All of which seemed to be a surprise to a number of shocked Hawkeye fans who, for some reason, hadn't been expecting much from the late-breaking Trojans. It was the end of a near-perfect week returning to the top of the national college football heap for USC, save for the ill-timed practice visit by Justin Fargas family friend and Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson that became the story for a couple of days.
NO. 3 -- USC 23, AUBURN 0, 2003: This was a big, big deal. An Auburn team, ranked sixth in the nation but picked by some to win it all with as much talent as anyone, was favored over a young, but also talented No. 8 USC. And just as John McKay's teams had made the Trojan brand by venturing into the heart of Dixie to play SEC teams Alabama, LSU and Arkansas, Pete Carroll's Trojans were following that same path. And doing so with Sam Cunningham in tow for the return trip to Alabama as well. And to protect a young Matt Leinart with maybe just a half-of-a-gameplan installed, the Trojans defense swarmed and took the ball away and played too fast for the Tigers to handle. And for those USC fans who were there, the quiet there on "the loveliest village on the plain" was the sweetest sound of all.
NO. 2 -- USC 34, NOTRE DAME 31, 2005: Not all that good a game for the No. 1 Trojans, winners of 27 straight, who found themselves starting slowly, struggling it seemed throughout and trailing at the end against Charlie Weis' ninth-ranked Irish. Maybe it was the nationally televised pep rally the night before, so big it had to be held in the stadium where Joe Montana, Tim Brown and "Rudy" exhorted Irish fans -- and a few of us from SC to "wake up the echoes" the next day. Or the fact that College GameDay was here. Or the green jerseys Notre Dame switched to after warmups. But by the end, there were more people down on the field than I could recall at a game's end ever so the best place to watch from was the vacated Notre Dame band stand at the corner of the end zone so to see above the throng. A perfect spot to track Matt Leinart's fourth-and-nine dart from the USC 26 to a single-covered Dwayne Jarrett just over DB Ambrose Wooden as Jarrett scampered down to the Irish 13 with yours truly leaping off the stands and running right behind Jarrett to get to the other end zone. And just in time to see the most amazing end to a USC game any of us are ever going to see -- Leinart getting bounced as he fumbled out of bounds at the 1, the clock being allowed to expire by mistake as the Notre Dame students rushed the field before they were shooed off and the time put back. And then, with seven seconds on the clock came the fake spike and Leinart's spin across the goal line with help from Reggie Bush in a twin-Heisman game-winner that left 80,795, and most of the 30 million homes tuned into the game, the largest TV audience in nine years, almost too limp to react. No USC fan who made it here will ever forget the feeling. Ever.
NO. 1 -- USC 55, OKLAHOMA 19, 2005: As much fun building up to a game as you could ever possibly have. The defending champion and top-ranked Trojans, however, weren't the smart choice, as it turned out, despite 21 straight wins. Especially not after the open USC practices for the Orange Bowl/BCS title game were deemed too full of fun and not nearly as serious as those closed Oklahoma practices no one got to see -- but were surely much less laugh-filled, we were told. And then the second-ranked Sooners jumped out to a 7-0 lead and it was on, the OU folks thought. Only that was before USC scored the next 28 points and didn't slow down using every weapon in its arsenal to put the game out of reach -- 38-10 -- by halftime, with Oklahoma fans heading to the airport early as USC won a record eighth game by more than 30 points and recorded its first-ever 13-win season. Matt Leinart threw for five TDs, Steve Smith caught three of them while ballhawking linebackers Matt Grootegoed and Lofa Tatupu and safety Darnell Bing seemed to know where the ball was going before the OU players throwing and catching it did. And all the outnumbered USC fans there will never forget it.
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