USC and Michigan both had national title hopes in 1976 and they brought those hopes into their matchup at the 1977 Rose Bowl. Even though circumstances didn’t work out for either team to end up playing for the title, the Trojans and Wolverines still staged a great battle for #2.
The Trojans were coming off an 8-4 season, something that was a disappointment for them at a time when head coach John McKay had won national championships in 1967 and 1972 and finished #2 in 1974. McKay went on to the NFL to coach the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and John Robinson took over for the new season.
USC was still ranked eighth in the preseason polls and they were loaded with talent. Ricky Bell ran for over 1,400 yards and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. There were two good receivers in Shelton Diggs and Tandy Simmrin and a future NFL starter in Vince Evans at quarterback. All-American offensive lineman Marvin Powell anchored the trenches.
On the defensive side, tackle Gary Jeter and corner Dennis Thurman—both future pros—got All-American notice. It made a season-opening loss at home to Missouri, by a 46-25 count, all the more shocking and counted as a rocky start to Robinson’s tenure.
USC turned it around though, and began blowing through opponents in what was then the Pac-8 conference (Arizona & Arizona State were not yet members, nor were more recent additions in Utah and Colorado). The Trojans won eight games in a row, rose to third in the nation and had big games with UCLA and Notre Dame ahead that would define their season.
Michigan had gone 38-3-3 the previous four regular seasons but never reached the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten did not allow runner-ups to go to bowls prior to 1975, so the previous year’s Orange Bowl—a loss to national champion Oklahoma—was the only postseason appearance for head coach Bo Schembecler over since 1971. The Wolverines opened the season ranked #2 in the nation and had a plethora of talent themselves.
Rob Lytle rushed for over 1,400 yards himself and led the Big Ten in carries, yards and yards-per-attempt. Both guards on the offensive line, Mark Donahue and Bill Dufek, were All-Americans. Jim Smith got similar mention for both his receiving and return skills. Linebacker Calvin O’Neal anchored the defense.
The Big Ten was known as “The Big Two” and “Little Eight” in those days, recognizing that Michigan and Ohio State were the only programs capable of serious contention. Minnesota, who finished 6-5, was the only other team to even finish over .500 overall. Michigan hadn’t yet started its season-opening series with Notre Dame, so there was no one to challenge them as they blew their first eight games.
There shouldn’t have been any problems at Purdue on November 6. Michigan had moved to the top of the polls in the first week after Nebraska played to a tie, and there was no reason to think the Wolverines wouldn’t be undefeated when they played Ohio State. But in West Lafayette, the UM defense gave up 162 yards rushing to future NFL running back Scott Dierking, trailed 16-14 and then missed a 37-yard field goal as time expired.
On November 20, Michigan was #4 in the country and USC was #3. The two teams were playing their traditional rivals, Ohio State and UCLA in winner-take-all games that served as de facto semi-finals for the Rose Bowl. UCLA was ranked #2. The winners would go to Pasadena and hope that top-ranked Pitt would either lose the following week to Penn State or in the Sugar Bowl.
The Trojans and Wolverines both dominated. In the Midwest, the game was scoreless at half and Michigan had to turn back an Ohio State drive with an end-zone interception. That was the only time the Buckeyes got near the end zone all day. Lytle rushed for 165 yards and Michigan eventually broke it open for a 22-0 win. Out west, Bell played on a sprained ankle and ran for 167 yards. USC led 24-0 before UCLA scored two meaningless touchdowns to make the final score look respectable.
USC and Michigan came to Pasadena in the 2-3 spots in the polls after Pitt was able to beat Penn State. The Sugar Bowl was played in the early afternoon on New Year’s 1977, so everyone at the Rose Bowl would know by kickoff if this game was for a national title.
No such luck. Pitt routed Georgia, but the pride of the Rose Bowl rivalry was more than enough for both schools. Particularly with Schembecler having never won a Rose Bowl and Robinson coaching in his first.
The game went Michigan’s way early. Bell was knocked out on the second play of the game, and Lytle scored on a short rushing touchdown. The extra point was blocked and that seemed to mark the shift of momentum over to USC.
Charles White was #2 on the USC depth chart at tailback and at ran for over 850 yards himself. The freshman would win the Heisman Trophy his senior year. Today was his breakout game, as he went for 114 in Bell’s absence. Evans threw for 181 yards, including a fourth-and-goal sprintout just before halftime that gave USC the lead.
With three minutes left, White scored a touchdown that basically clinched a tie for USC in the era prior to overtime. Michigan got a pair of long completions from quarterback Rick Leach to get into USC territory and Leach then picked up six yards on a keeper. But on 2nd-and-4, Leach threw three straight incompletions. Ballgame, and USC was #2.
It wasn’t the last time Robinson would win in Pasadena and it wasn’t the last time Schembecler would face frustration. But in the modern era of 1976 and beyond, this battle for #2 was the biggest Rose Bowl game these two proud schools would play against each other.