Who knew back in 1996 that there would come a time two decades later when we'd be taking a look back, a hard look back, and trying to whittle down to a mere 20 all the special moments that USC fans and football players and coaches would still be celebrating?
But here we go. Are these subjective? You bet. This is all about how do these make you feel as much as the logic and reason behind each selection.
One ground rule here. We're ranking these moments against all the others over that time but not one against the other. Each of us can do our own grading scale and our own personal connection to one or another that maybe someone else -- or most everyone else -- does not share.
For example, I'll give you one of mine. It was the day in July of 2002 when the Riverside Press-Enterprise hired me to cover both the USC and UCLA beats. My first thought was to head on down to USC -- it was a much easier, quicker trip -- and see what was going on in the summer workouts, if anything.
I got here and opened the gate to Howard Jones Field and there were the USC players working out. Not as organized as we see today. And not as many. But the guys running things -- Carson Palmer for the offense and Troy Polamalu for the defense -- had me telling myself that USC may be coming off a 6-6 season but how bad could this team be with those two guys in charge.
I remember telling everyone when fall camp started, especially when we saw the arrival of freshman Mike Williams, a man among boys from Day 1, that this USC program had possibilities, as Pete Carroll clearly realized.
It certainly did.
That's how publisher Ryan Abraham saw it when he started USCFootball.com 20 years ago. This thing has possibilities. And it had its special moments, those little single plays or vignettes, that said so much more than just one play or one scene ever could. Ryan, the photographer that he is, could focus on that one play in ways I probably never will. Like when Reggie Bush leapt over that helpless UCLA defender in that classic game-action goal line photo that will live forever in USC annals no matter what the NCAA says. Now that's a moment for Ryan.
Or from the Peristyle, when Sunny Byrd nailed that Iowa defender in the 2002 Orange Bowl who had been mouthing off about "California surfers" and got flattened -- literally -- by one of them. A moment that symbolized perfectly how the West Coast guys from SoCal were back.
Our moments below here are a bit more extended, more of the story-telling kind, as we consider that moment after the game when you got to look back and say, "That went well." And 20 years later, you still can say that. Here they are:
4th and 9/Bush push
No way to separate these two. No way to top them either. First of all, it was Notre Dame . . . in South Bend . . . when the stakes could not have been higher for the Trojans in 2005 and against all the lore of the annals of the Golden Dome, as if Knute Rockne had given the "Win one for the Gipper speech" to the wrong team, USC's Trojans can boast for all time of the single most dramatic, improbable, against-all-odds finish in the history of that legendary place -- and maybe in all of college football. With thousands crowding the sidelines as the clock ticked down, and USC going the wrong way on its last chance at its own 26, we'd taken up a spot in the Notre Dame band stands behind the end zone when the Irish bandsmen departed for the sidelines. And lined up directly behind the Trojans' final shot. When Matt Leinart dropped after changing the play at the line of scrimmage, we saw the ball heading at both Dwayne Jarrett and that Irish defensive back running with him. Somehow, some way the ball just missed that gold helmet and hit Jarrett in stride for 61 amazing yards. As he ran, so did we. This was one finish we did not want to miss. And it was going to be at the other end of the field. By the time you finished your sprint, there was no time to catch your breath. There was the Leinart keep to the flag that ended with the ball knocked out of bounds short of the goal. Then the failure to stop the clock. The Notre Dame students rushing the field. The USC players not moving. The officials finally getting control. The teams lining up as Pete signaled a kill-the-clock play with three seconds on the clock and the ball on the 1-yard line. And then Leinart surprised with that leap and dive, was stopped, twisted one more time and with the aid of Reggie Bush's push, finishing in the end zone for a 34-31 win right in the corner where 5,000 joyous USC fans knew, absolutely knew, that on this day, someone above had chosen to smile on the "Fight On" folks. Never had a feeling like that after a football game before. And probably never will. No one wanted to leave in the twilight as the lights came on providing a halo effect for everyone in Cardinal and Gold. For a football fan, especially a USC football fan, it was a moment they never wanted to end. And for a while, it didn't.
Realistically, this was the single biggest deal in the last two decades for USC football. The smart folks were saying that Oklahoma -- the big, bad, tough-minded Sooners, a team none of them saw practice in Florida -- were much more serious about this Orange Bowl national championship game than Carroll's guys going for their 22nd straight win with the open practices and having way too much fun. And then the game started. And on his first series, Oklahoma scored on a 92-yard drive and euphoria ensued, especially on Sooners fans message boards in what would be legendary in-game threads that descended quickly into despair and desperation. Because from that moment on, Adrian Peterson was more likely to be sent end over end in his own backfield by the likes of Mike Patterson as USC ran off 38 points off turnovers, 28 straight, as Matt Leinart threw five TD passes -- three to Steve Smith who has yet to be located by OU DBs -- while familiar names like Matt Grootegoed, Eric Wright and Jason Leach were making interceptions and recovering fumbles a pattern that would be followed again and again as OU turned it over five times to none for USC. It was 38-10 at halftime as the departing Sooner fans booed their team heading to the locker room as they fled Miami's Pro Player Stadium. Ryan Killeen broke the USC scoring record that night. The Trojans averaged 8.3 yards a play. Reggie Bush had 149 all-purpose yards. And LenDale White 116 on the ground as the Trojans became only the second team to hold the No. 1 AP ranking from preseason to after a bowl game that featured four of the Heisman Trophy finalists.
44-13/Carson Palmer Heisman
Call it a two-fer. Or maybe a three-fer. It was Notre Dame at the Coliseum in 2002 to end a dream season marking the comeback of USC to the big time after a decade-and-a-half of being out of the picture. Not only did Carson Palmer wrap up USC's first Heisman in 21 years with his 425 yards passing for five TDs, both then Notre Dame opponent records, but USC racked up another then-ND-opponent record 610 yards of offense while completing USC's first sweep of UCLA and Notre Dame since 1981 and most importantly, qualifying for a top-four BCS bowl berth in the Orange Bowl as the nation's fastest improving team. For the sellout crowd of 91,432, it was a hint of what was to come under Pete Carroll.
There have been larger crowds than the 90,008 fans in the Coliseum that Oct. 9 in 2004 but none has ever made more noise at the finish as Cal's Aaron Rodgers, after earlier tying an NCAA record by completing his first 23 straight passes, led the No. 7 Bears on what could have been the final game-winning drive against No. 1 USC as they reached the USC 9 with 1:47 left. But as Cal lined up for the final series in the closed end of the Coliseum, the noise came down in waves that you could feel on the floor. The sound assaulted your ears. And then it got louder as USC D-lineman Manuel Wright sacked Rodgers on first down. Then in a reverse of that earlier 23-completion streak, USC shut down Cal on three straight pass attempts as the noise just kept getting dialed up and up. For the first ESPN GameDay show at the Coliseum, USC gave them just what they wanted.
This was a biggie. Was USC a one-season wonder now that Carson and Troy had left the premises or could Pete Carroll pull it off in the 2003 opener with an untested quarterback, Matt Leinart, and young defenders like Darnell Bing, as it headed to Auburn, Ala., and a sold-out stadium with 86,063 fans sure that their sixth-ranked Tigers would make mince-meat out of the pretenders from the West Coast with Auburn's SEC stable full of NFL-bound talent? Well, as it turns out, USC wasn't a one-hit wonder. Auburn was the one hit on this day, barely getting the ball across the 50-yard line much less near the red zone in a 23-0 USC defense-fueled romp when Leinart was operating with a very much restricted playbook that didn't impact an aggressive USC a bit but probably impacted the possibility of SEC teams scheduling USC for the first decade and a half of the 21st Century. This game said USC was more than for real and would be for a while.
December 15, 2000
Not that anyone could have possibly known it at the time, least of all USC AD Mike Garrett who had just fired his second head coach in four years, Paul Hackett, but he was up against it. The first three coaches he wanted, Oregon State's Dennis Erickson, Oregon's Mike Bellotti and the San Diego Chargers Mike Riley, all said no. That left a USC parent, Pete Carroll, whose daughter, Jaime, was on the volleyball team and he was available and interested after a year out of football after NFL stints at the Jets and the Patriots. But he hadn't coached in college for a couple of decades. Still, there was something about his personality and USC Associate AD Daryl Gross, who worked with him at the Jets, was high on Carroll. A lot of USC fans, several thousand who wrote in decrying the hire, were not when Carroll was introduced that day on Dec. 15, 2000. So when Carroll's first team went 2-5, even though the losses were close, the naysayers were saying they told you so. Then USC rallied, finished 6-5, beat UCLA before falling in the Las Vegas Bowl to Utah. But by Year 2, the Trojans were back. Almost all the way back to the big-time with an Orange Bowl win and a Heisman Trophy to start Carroll's run as the dominant college coach in the first decade of the 21st Century. Here are just some of what USC accomplished under Carroll: two BCS championship game appearances, two AP national titles, one BCS title, seven straight AP Top Four finishes and BCS Bowl appearances, a 6-1 BCS bowl record, a record 33 straight weeks as AP No. 1, 14-2 record against Notre Dame and UCLA, 97-19 overall record (83.6 percent), NCAA record 63 straight 20-point games, 25 first-team AP All-Americans, 53 players picked in the NFL Draft (14 first-rounders), 34-game win streak, 25-1 November record and three Heisman winners in four years. Yep, Dec. 15, 2000, was a very good day for USC football -- and USCFootball.com.
2004 Rose Bowl
It's the under-the-radar moment of the last 20 years. Hard to believe that USC's first national championship in 25 years would have been somewhat unappreciated as a moment to recall with great fondness but there it is. A No. 1 USC team, 11-1 and unchallenged since a three-overtime loss at Cal, had been aced out of the BCS title game featuring LSU and Oklahoma, would face No. 4 Michigan in Pasadena. All the Trojans had to do was win impressively over the Wolverines as MVP Matt Leinart threw for three TDs and caught a fourth [from wide receiver Mike Williams] as the Big Ten champs couldn't keep pace against a USC defense led by the likes of Shaun Cody, who blocked a field goal, and the 12 tackles and an interception by Lofa Tatupu and the 10 tackles, and five deflections, by Will Poole. USC D-line coach Kenechi Udeze had three of USC's nine sacks against a Michigan team that had allowed only 15 all season. And a mere five TD passes before USC's four. Which gets us to the star of the day -- current USC football staffer Keary Colbert who finished off his record career catching total of 207 with a pair of spectacular TD grabs -- a 25-yard fingertip catch on the game's fourth play followed by a 47-yard eye-popping one-handed catch to open the second half. Running back LenDale White recorded his freshman record 14th TD in the game.
Admit it, the only thing that was wrong with this 2011 regular season finale against the crosstown Bruins in their first-ever all-white helmets and uniforms -- "surrender unis" -- in front of 93,607 at the Coliseum was that it wasn't 60-0 or 70-0. But it was even more than that. It was our last favorable glimpse of a Lane Kiffin-coached USC team that used the memory of this moment to go into 2012 ranked No. 1 and then an unprecedented first-to-worst plunge in the polls the following fall. But that was a good time, even if USC would apparently pay for it with a karmic comeuppance when a year after USC beat Notre Dame and UCLA, both would get them back as the world would get flipped around on Trojans leaving the memory of this game all they had for a while, especially in the long winter after the beyond-embarrassing Sun Bowl events.
There's a theme for 2011. On a cold Nov. 19 night in Eugene, USC took it to the fourth-ranked Ducks in front of a national TV audience and a whole host of Nike NBA stars that Phil Knight had summoned to the sidelines led by the likes of LeBron James, to watch the Ducks strut their 21-game-home-win-streak stuff. Only that's not how it worked out. Lane Kiffin, in his most memorable moment, dressed up in all-white ski outfit to pimp the cold with all the recruits watching and behind the blocking of Matt Kalil and Rhett Ellison and the offense generated by receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee from quarterback Matt Barkley with running back Marc Tyler, took a 38-14 lead that Monte Kiffin's late-game defense could not give up thanks to the earlier heroics of Nick Perry, T.J. McDonald, Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard. Sure, it took a missed 37-yard Oregon field goal at the end to preserve this one. But dodging a bullet or not, and in the cold Oregon night, it felt awfully good.
Here they were, back in the big time. Carson Palmer coming off a late-breaking Heisman win and Pete Carroll's guys, in only his second season, were ranked fourth in the BCS, high enough for the Orange Bowl to match them up with Big Ten co-champ Iowa, the nation's No. 3 team in the AP Poll. For a 10-1 Iowa team, this was kind of a return to the big time as well and after weeks of bantering back and forth on the message boards, the Hawkeye fans could not have been more confident behind quarterback Brad Banks, the AP's player of the year. And Iowa had the nation's second-ranked defense against the run. None of that mattered a bit after Iowa jumped out ahead twice thanks to a 100-yard kickoff return and a field goal before USC, despite missing All-American Troy Polamalu with a reaction to a shot for a hamstring injury, came back for a 10-10 tie at half. Then the Trojans showed up, scoring three straight times after intermission to set that final 21-point margin. Against a team allowing just 68.2 yards rushing a game, USC totaled a season-best 247 yards with Justin Fargas going out with a bang -- and 122 yards and two TDs as USC dominated the stats with 550 total yards to 323, 80 plays to 58, 30 first downs to 18 and 38:06 possession time to 21:54. Orange Bowl MVP Palmer hit on 21 of 31 passing for 303 yards as USC's coming-out party went well.
This was not going well. In front of a sellout crowd of 71,706 in Tempe -- in the daytime on Oct. 1 no less with the sun blazing down and the temperature reaching 100, the top-ranked Trojans were going for a Pac-10 record 26th straight win. But after a horrific start with nine first-half offensive penalties, USC trailed the 14th-ranked Sun Devils 21-3 at halftime as Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart was knocked out briefly on a late hit. Was this the moment USC would cash in its chips, the end of the line for the streak? It was not. The Trojans came out to score 21 unanswered points after intermission and 35 of the final 42. And for the first time we'd ever seen it, ran a hurry-up offense without passing the ball much using Reggie Bush and LenDale White to pound away for huge chunks against the fading Devils. Bush would gain 158 yards with TD bursts of 24 and 34 yards. White would total 197 yards with TD romps of 32 and 46 yards as USC came from behind with 5:57 left trailing 28-24. The big defensive play of the game came on an interception of a batted ball by USC freshman Kevin Ellison.
The next home game at the Coliseum after USC's 55-19 national championship win over Oklahoma, USC was facing a decent Darren McFadden-led Arkansas team after a 63-17 warm-up romp in Hawai'i. And 90,411 had shown up to see these 2005 Trojans, in a season when USC would play in front of 10 sellout crowds. Were they still that team from the year before? They were, as athletic directors all across the SEC made themselves a note not to schedule this USC program for a long, long while after watching the Trojans total 736 yards of offense with the Heisman teammates of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, on full display. Reggie scored the first two times he touched the ball, starting with a 76-yard TD dash that set the tone for the evening -- and the season.
It had been a while. The 1990s weren't all that kind to USC but somehow, the 8-2-1 Trojans made it to the Rose Bowl in 1996 after a six-year drought. We say "somehow." After losing to UCLA to end a so-so season, 17th-ranked USC made it into the game with a better overall season record than Washington. On the other side of the field were the plucky third-ranked 10-1 Wildcats of Northwestern, 47 years after the last time they made it to Pasadena. Now for a personal note. This was the first Rose Bowl I got to cover, working for a Chicago paper at the time and following some of those Northwestern playing alums returning to the West Coast. It was great fun for them in that crowd of 100,102. And for me, it was even more interesting when I discovered that sitting on a stool directly behind my seat in the top row of the press box was that famous Northwestern alum whose name I knew when I heard his voice even before I saw his face -- Charlton Heston. What a lovely man. And a perfect Hollywood way to get to my first Rose Bowl. He could not have been more gracious. But I think even Mr. Heston knew his overachieving Big Ten champ Wildcats were in trouble when the teams entered the field. The Trojans, led by 6-foot-6 quarterback Brad Otton's career highs of 29 for 44 passing for 391 yards and two TDs and 6-4 wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who caught a record 12 passes for first downs, looked like they were playing in Munchkin Land against the smallish Wildcats, who were led by tailback Darnell Autry's three touchdowns. USC was just too big, too strong, too much at home as John Robinson won his fourth Rose Bowl.
No. 5 Stanford was coming to town and the revitalized Trojans, having won four of five under interim coach Ed Orgeron after Lane Kiffin's firing after the Arizona State game, were waiting for them with their low-in-numbers, unranked guys. And 93,607 turned out to see what they could do. Well, playing essentially with just one sub, Clancy Pendergast's 12-man defense hung in there until an interception gave Cody Kessler a chance to hook up with Marqise Lee late in the game setting up an Andre Heidari 47-yard field goal with the score tied at 17 and just 19 seconds left. Heidari hit it setting off the longest, loudest, most-people-on-the-field celebration anyone could ever remember for the Trojans at the Coliseum. During a season that started out tough with a loss to Washington State at the Coliseum, there was joy, pure joy, in Troy.
Now this was fun, going to Columbus and the big Horseshoe where a record, and beyond loud Buckeye crowd of 106,033 was pretty sure that revenge would be Ohio State's in 2009 for USC's 35-3 romp the year before in the Coliseum. And for much of the night, it looked like they were right. And then it happened with freshman quarterback Matt Barkley figuring it out the final series with Joe Mcknight coming alive with his speed and quickness and the play calls coming together and plays that needed to be made were made as the Trojans drove relentlessly, one play then another for 86 crowd-quieting yards until with just 1:05 left, with the ball at the OSU 2, Stafon Johnson went in untouched for the game-winning score in what would turn out to be one of the two biggest road wins of Barkley's career.
It was the night Reggie Bush probably won his Heisman Trophy in 2005 and NCAA penalty or not, win it Reggie did. And we don't recognize sanctions here at USCFootball.com. So here's the story. A capacity crowd of 90,007 at the Coliseum was looking forward to the matchup with Fresno State's surprising 8-1 Bulldogs coming in as the nation's No. 16 team ready to challenge the top-ranked Trojans. And challenge the Trojans, who were going for their 33rd straight win and 26th straight at the Coliseum, Fresno State did. Pat Hill's team put up 42 points that November night. And it wasn't until 6:22 left in the game that USC put Fresno State away after giving up the lead late, trailing 42-41. And really, on a night when the USC defense, in a sign of what was to come in the Rose Bowl against Texas, could not stop the Bulldogs from scoring six TDs, the only answer for USC was Reggie. In a display of everything he'd ever done as a Trojan, Reggie came through, shattering the Pac-10 record for all-purpose yards in a game with 513, 145 yards more than the previous USC record of Anthony Davis in USC's 1972 win over Notre Dame. The bulk of those yards came running the ball as Reggie ran for 294 yards from the line of scrimmage in 23 carries with two TDs. He was also USC's leading receiver and return man. A Christian McCaffrey in hyper-speed.
Pete Carroll always said this was the moment and I have to agree with him. I was there, improbably, that Saturday in Tucson in 2001. My wife was covering the game for the LA Times and it sounded like a good weekend to take a trip and watch some football as a fan. So I did, finding a seat high in the stadium at the corner in the shade -- above the upbeat USC band and fans. Which surprised me a bit since the Trojans were 2-5 coming into Tucson with nothing but close losses, two in the final 12 seconds -- 10-6 to Kansas State, 24-22 to Oregon, 21-16 to Stanford, 27-24 to Washington and in the only double-digit loss, 27-16 to Notre Dame. And yet there was something to this "Fight On" thing apparently. USC jumped out to a 21-point second-half lead, lost it and then it happened. Kris Richard, Pete's defensive coordinator at Seattle now, picked off a Wildcat pass with 1:50 left, returned it 58 yards for the game-winning score and USC was off. winning three more for a 6-5 record and a spot in the Las Vegas Bowl to get Pete and his guys through Year 1 headed in the right direction.
In my first fall in LA and first USC-UCLA game, I didn't have a dog in this fight. UCLA was ranked No. 20. USC, coming back from that 2-5 start, was trying to get above .500 for the season. But I remember how USC had run out of running backs, as I recall. Checked the numbers for USC starter Sunny Byrd and he carried 20 times for 40 yards in this game. Carson Palmer got things started with a TD pass to Keary Colbert. But it was the USC defense, with three interceptions and a couple of fumble recoveries that mattered most for the crowd of 88,588 at the Coliseum as a swarming USC just did not allow the Bruins to get into the game even a little bit. The play of the game came from USC DB Antwaun Simmons, who intercepted a ball off UCLA receiver Brian Poli-Dixon's hands after having the ball go behind his knees before he secured it for the 36-yard TD run that put this one out of the Bruins' reach and secured a winning regular season for Carroll & Co. And set the tone for Carroll's dominance against USC archrivals UCLA and Notre Dame.
In one of those "only in the Pac-12" moments, here was No. 1 USC heading off for two straight weeks in 2004 to those Northwest metropolises -- Corvallis, Ore., and Pullman, Wash. -- in bad weather in front of small crowds for games not many would see anywhere in the civilized world. Rainy, chilly Martin Stadium in the Palouse was the start for USC's Lewis and Clark expedition where the Trojans were the first ever No. 1 team to visit there, as a crowd of 35,117 and a hailstorm, greeted the Trojans, who held the Cougs to a minus-nine yards rushing in a 42-12 romp. But that Oct. 30 date was just the setup for a visit to Corvallis a week later where the weather was far worse, far weirder and with the orange-and-black Beavers at home a week after Halloween, scary as heck. And not just because USC jumped out behind 13-0 in the second quarter. And not just because USC was playing in, as the media guide describes it, (fog) and (cold). That didn't begin to describe it. From the midfield sideline, you could not see the opposite stands or almost any of the crowd of 36,412 who had somehow found their way to Reser Stadium. The end zones were way past the end of your viewing world. USC radio play-by-play man Pete Arbogast left the press box to call the game from the sidelines walking with the plays to be able to see who was doing what. Only a one-handed TD grab by Dominique Byrd broke through the fog on the first of his two TD catches that got USC going on a 28-point run where Reggie Bush's 65-yard punt return finally put the game away and preserved USC's shot at a national title.
This was not going to end well, you'd have thought, for USC's 5-6 Trojans coming into this 1996 season finale against Notre Dame off three straight regular season losses -- the last one to UCLA, 48-41, with just 39 seconds left. And Lou Holtz' Irish were No. 10 in the nation in his last game as Notre Dame coach. And even more importantly, USC had gone 13 straight games against Notre Dame without winning. So even when USC scored with 1:50 left to make it 20-18 on a Delon Washington 15-yard run and then saw him barely get the ball to the goal line for the two-point extra point to send the game into overtime, there was this: USC had already lost its only two overtime games that year. But Brad Otton hit Anthony Sermons for a five-yard TD to give USC a 27-20 go-ahead lead. And then it happened. The Trojans battled on defense and batted down ND QB Ron Powlus' last desperate throws from the 29-yard line to send Holtz home a loser to USC for the first time in his coaching career. For the 90,296 fans at the Coliseum, it was a walk they'll never forget.
USCFootball.com has been covering USC Trojans football and recruiting for 20 years. Our expert team with Gerard Martinez, Dan Weber, Shotgun Spratling, Keely Eure and publisher Ryan Abraham keep you up to speed on everything Trojan football.