For some, the quarantine is a time to catch up on cleaning, reading or binge-watching. But for USC football fans, it’s a chance to relive the program’s glory years.
As a relative newcomer to Trojan football, it’s been a fun opportunity for me to witness what made USC so special back in the day. Here are the top five USC football games to watch while you’re stuck inside.
1. 2017 Rose Bowl vs. Penn State
We’ll start with the last time USC fans felt pure joy — the 2017 Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. Before we talk about the actual game, consider the amount of current NFL talent in this game. Adoree Jackson, Saquon Barkley, Sam Darnold, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chris Godwin all took the field. Eleven players from this game were taken in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft, and three have already made Pro Bowls.
Under the lights in Pasadena, the sheer amount of talent was on display in a game that had everything. USC went on an early 13-0 run thanks to interceptions by Jackson and Iman Marshall. Barkley made USC’s entire defense look silly, going on a 79-yard romp in the second quarter that gave the Nittany Lions their first lead of the game. Godwin scored on a 72-yard catch and run after bobbling the ball a hundred times. Twice, USC had to overcome double-digit deficits in the second half thanks to a 28-8 third quarter run by Penn State.
But USC held on, thanks to a star-making performance by Darnold. The Trojans tied the game at 49 with just over a minute to go on a miraculous 27-yard heave to Deontay Burnett that Darnold squeezed between three defenders. One Leon McQuay III interception and 46-yard field goal later, USC had secured its first Rose Bowl victory in a decade in one of the greatest games in school history.
Watch for the stars, the drama and the atmosphere. And because it’s the last time USC delivered on the national stage.
2. USC vs. Notre Dame, 2005
Forever immortalized as the “Bush Push” game, the Trojans held off the Fighting Irish in perhaps the most memorable game in the rivalry’s history.
USC stormed into South Bend with an unbelievable 27-game win streak on the line. The Fighting Irish fielded their best team in years, featuring quarterback Brady Quinn and new head coach Charlie Weis.
The streak appeared to be dead and buried when Quinn scored a rushing touchdown with two minutes to go, giving Notre Dame a 31-28 lead. But USC quarterback Matt Leinart orchestrated one of the best two-minute drives in school history. Facing fourth-and-9 from his own 26-yard line, Leinart called an audible and fired a strike to Dwayne Jarrett down the sideline. The play picked up 61 yards, prompting color commentator Pat Haden (remember him?) to quip, “That’s why [Leinart] won the Heisman trophy.”
A few plays later, Leinart rammed his way into the end zone thanks to a controversial push from running back Reggie Bush, giving the Trojans a lead with three seconds left. USC escaped with its 28th straight win and fourth straight victory in the rivalry.
The Pete Carroll era is rightfully defined by USC blowing its opponents out of the water (see: 2004 National Championship). This was one of the few times where the team’s backs were against the wall late in a game and it had to deliver. Even though the Trojans fell short of their ultimate goal in 2005, the game will have USC fans cheering like it’s happening live.
3. USC vs. Alabama, 1970
This game’s historical importance transcends football itself. Up until that point, Alabama fielded a white-only football team. Legend has it that Alabama head coach Bear Bryant scheduled this game to send a message to his school: if we don’t integrate like USC, we’ll fall behind as a national powerhouse.
The message was received loud and clear thanks to USC’s Sam “Bam” Cunningham. The bruising fullback rushed for 135 yards on 12 carries with two touchdowns. The Trojans won 42-21 in Birmingham.
“We were bigger, faster, quicker and I’d have to say probably stronger too,” Cunningham told USC as part of its Black History Month project in 2016. “We proved that that evening.”
A few years later, the Tide integrated their squad, changing Southeastern football forever. The actual game itself wasn’t a thriller, as the Trojans utterly dominated the Tide. But it’s sure to fill USC fans’ hearts with pride. Its status as one of the most influential games in the sport’s history makes this contest a must-watch for any college football fan.
4. 1996 Rose Bowl vs. Northwestern
In what was a rarity in the game’s history, the Trojans entered the 1996 Rose Bowl as underdogs. No. 3 Northwestern was riding high after winning nine games in a row and finishing with its first winning record since 1972.
On the other side, John Robinson’s Trojans sputtered into Pasadena. They started the season ranked in the top 10, but losses to Notre Dame and UCLA and a tie with Washington upended their national title hopes. In getting swept by their two most hated foes, their pride was wounded.
The Trojans came out of the tunnel with something to prove and raced to an early 24-7 lead. The Wildcats came all the way back, leading 32-31 in the fourth quarter. But USC wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson proved to be too much to handle. He finished with 216 receiving yards, and the Trojans won a thriller 41-32, erasing the disappointment of their earlier defeats.
“I forget, who won those games?,” said offensive tackle John Michels to the Los Angeles Times after the game.
This Rose Bowl is worth the watch for Johnson’s performance alone. After Johnson scored on a 56-yard touchdown, color commentator Bob Griese called him a “man among boys,” and it doesn’t even feel like hyperbole.
5. USC vs. Notre Dame, 2016
On an uncomfortably rainy afternoon in the Coliseum, Adoree Jackson was anything but under the weather. He reached the end zone in three dazzlingly different ways — a 55-yard punt return, a 52-yard reception and a 97-yard kick return during which he hurdled the kicker for good measure. The performance was so spectacular it generated genuine Heisman buzz despite Jackson being outside of the conversation for the entire season.
Realistically, I don’t expect you to watch the full game. It was a sloppy affair, with USC starting slow and the teams combining for four turnovers. But definitely watch Jackson’s three touchdowns on a continuous loop for hours. It’s what every USC fan needs during this difficult time.
USC vs. Texas, 2017
1963 Rose Bowl vs. Wisconsin
USC vs. Stanford, 2013