USC has always, in varying degrees, played good football throughout the long history of its program. But the Trojans were never more dominant than under head coach John McKay. Arriving in Los Angeles in 1960, McKay won a national title by 1962. He won another one in 1967. A third championship came in 1972. The 1973 USC football team didn’t finish on top of the polls and by their own high standards could even be considered a disappointment. But they did add another conference crown to McKay’s already stuffed resume.
The Trojans were led by running back Anthony Davis, who racked up over 1,100 yards and was all-conference in the Pac-8. Rod McNeil added 763 yards, at better than five a pop, to give McKay a 1-2 punch in the backfield. Davis and McNeil ran behind an offensive line that was led by tackles Booker Brown and Steve Riley, each of whom got some love in the All-America voting.
A couple of big names led the passing game. Pat Haden had an NFL future ahead of him as quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams, and the junior signal-caller completed 56 percent of his passes, and threw 13 touchdowns. In an era where the rules made it much harder to throw, those numbers were pretty good.
Haden’s top receiver was more than pretty good. Lynn Swann would go on to play with the Pittsburgh Steelers, be a Super Bowl hero and make the Hall of Fame. In 1973, his junior year with the Trojans, he was a 1st-team All-American. The passing game was rounded out by the coach’s son, John McKay Jr (known casually as J.T.), and tight end Jim Obradonvich.
Defensively, USC was led by All-Americans in linebacker Richard Wood and defensive back Artimus Parker. Monte Doris played middle guard—something that was a cross between a noseguard and a middle linebacker—and made all-conference.
With this talent, and the program’s pedigree, it’s not hard to see why USC was ranked #1 in the preseason polls and favored to repeat as national champions. But, while they would certainly be better than most, that didn’t work out. The fact the offense ended the season ranked 27th in the nation for points scored, with the defense coming in 41st, is a high-level indicator that this Trojan team would not match its immediate predecessor.
USC opened the season at home against Arkansas, a program that had been a national contender a few years earlier, but was currently mediocre. The Trojans won 17-0. They followed that up with a road win over another mediocre opponent in Georgia Tech, 23-6.
That set up the first big test, a home date with #8 Oklahoma. USC controlled play in the first half, but a failure to capitalize on some OU turnovers meant the Trojans only led 7-0. Those opportunities dried up in the second half. The Sooners tied the game 7-7 and in this era before overtime existed, that’s where it ended. The tie resulted in USC slipping to #4.
Pac-8 play (the league did not become the Pac-10 until 1978, when Arizona and Arizona State joined) began in early October with a trip to Oregon State. Facing a bad team, USC’s 21-7 win was unimpressive. When they needed to win a shootout at home over mediocre Washington State, 46-35, pollsters responded by dropping the Trojans to #6.
A 31-10 rout over lowly Oregon set up a trip to South Bend on October 27. Notre Dame was undefeated and currently ranked #8. This was the opportunity for USC to reassert themselves and get back into a national championship picture that was otherwise crowded with teams that had perfect records.
One year earlier, Anthony Davis had ran for six touchdowns against the Irish. This year, A.D. was held to 55 yards. The Notre Dame ground game controlled play. USC’s attempts to rally in the fourth quarter foundered due to three turnovers in the final period. A 23-14 loss knocked the Trojans to #9 and took them out of the national championship race that the Irish would eventually win.
But both of USC’s blemishes had come in non-conference play, so the Pac-8 and the Rose Bowl were still out there. And the season’s biggest league games would come in the final three weeks. The Trojans tuned up for the stretch drive with a 50-14 road blasting of a subpar Cal team.
Stanford and UCLA were the two primary competitors for league honors. The Bruins had beaten the Cardinal earlier in October. Stanford came to USC on November 10. The Cardinal had the conference’s best quarterback in Mike Boryla. Besides the UCLA defeat, their only losses were to nationally elite teams in Penn State and Michigan. Although, it should be noted that the UCLA and Michigan losses were by a combined 83 points.
USC was up against it, trailing Stanford 26-24 late. From his own 30-yard line, Haden hit three consecutive passes. The biggest was 25 yards to Obradonvich. An even bigger effort was done by the tight end to get out of bounds at the Cardinal 17-yard line when the Trojans were out of timeouts. That effort allowed kicker Chils Limahelu—whose soccer-style motion was still a novelty at the time—to boot a 34-yard field goal with three seconds left. USC escaped 27-26.
The league race was now set up for USC and UCLA to meet in a winner-take-all battle for the Rose Bowl. Washington was the sandwich game that followed Stanford, but the Huskies were a bad team, and the Trojans rolled to a 42-19 win.
On November 24, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the rivalry went down. Bruin running back Kermit Johnson would edge out A.D. for the conference rushing title. ABC’s legendary Keith Jackson was on hand for the broadcast. And USC showed that, even though they had missed some opportunities on the national stage, they were still kings of their own backyard. The Trojans won 23-13 and took home an outright Pac-8 championship.
The Rose Bowl matchup with fourth-ranked Ohio State would fit the season. USC was good enough to take a 21-14 lead in the third quarter. But they were flawed enough to ultimately be overrun by Buckeye star Archie Griffin and lose 42-21. The Trojans finished #8 in the final rankings.
A Top 10 finish and an outright conference championship is a memorable year at most programs. But USC was not most programs. In 1974, they “bounced back” and finished #2 in the polls (and finished #1 in the coaches poll, who refused to rank probation-ridden Oklahoma, the consensus national champion). McKay would leverage his success and go to the NFL with the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers by 1976. But John Robinson succeeded him and the beat went on at USC. They were national champs again by 1978.