USC was in their third year under the coaching stewardship of John Robinson. In his rookie year of 1976, Robinson beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl and finished #2 in the nation. Even though the Trojans slipped in 1977, expectations were still high. The 1978 USC football team was ranked ninth in the preseason polls.
Southern Cal’s lefty quarterback Paul McDonald would finish with a 19/7 TD-INT ratio in 1978 and both numbers were very good by the standards of the era. The Trojans had a potentially great tailback in Charles White. He gained over 1,800 yards and set the stage for his Heisman run in 1979.
Lynn Cain backed up White and with 977 yards of his own, Cain was still more productive than almost all of the starting backs around the country. All-American guard Pat Howell was the anchor of the offensive line that kept clearing the way.
USC opened with wins over Texas Tech and Oregon, then got down to business at top-ranked Alabama. The previous year, the Trojans’ downhill spiral began with a home loss to the Tide. Now it was time for payback. USC got it.
They led 10-7 in the fourth quarter, but McDonald was playing very well and he led consecutive fourth quarter touchdown drives that all but put the game away. The USC defense collected four turnovers in the fourth quarter alone and with the 24-14 win, the Trojans were moved up to #2 in the polls.
USC hosted Michigan State on the Friday night after the Alabama game. This was a good Spartan team, one that would have gone to the Rose Bowl by season’s end if not for NCAA probation. They had an All-American receiver in Kirk Gibson, who would later make a name for himself playing major league baseball. A letdown was a real possibility but to the Trojans’ credit, it didn’t happen and they won 30-9.
Where the letdown did come was at Arizona State in mid-October. The Sun Devils were a nine-win team and the 20-7 loss sent USC down to #7 in the polls. They would need help to get to a national championship and with the Pac-10 champ committed to playing the Big Ten champ in the Rose Bowl, it was hard for a one-loss team to get the right bowl matchups to work out.
In the meantime, the Trojans got back down to business, ripped through Oregon State and Cal, then survived a tough fight with Bill Walsh’s Stanford team and moved up to #5. On November 11, the Trojans took revenge on #19 Washington, who had won the conference the year before, with a 28-10 win at the Coliseum. They had two games remaining, and against their two biggest rivals—UCLA and Notre Dame.
USC jumped out a 17-0 lead on UCLA, with McDonald throwing a pair of a second-quarter touchdown passes. But the Bruins fought back and with five minutes left had closed to 17-10. Robinson gave the ball to White and the great running back took matters into his own hands, salting the game and the Rose Bowl trip away.
Notre Dame came to the Coliseum. The Irish were the defending national champion and after a couple early losses took them out of contention in ‘78, they were gaining momentum. The legendary Joe Montana, now in his senior year, was at quarterback.
USC jumped out to a 24-6 lead, but Montana rallied the Irish to a 25-24 lead. McDonald began one last desperate drive of his own. He appeared to fumble but official Gil Marchman ruled the quarterback’s arm was going forward. Given a hotly disputed reprieve, USC won the game on a last-play field goal. They finished the season a week later by beating Hawaii.
The Trojans were #3 in the polls and with the Sugar Bowl having a 1 vs. 2 showdown, should have been shut out of the national title discussion. But there was a loophole. The second-ranked team was Alabama. If the Tide could beat undefeated Penn State, and USC could handle its business in Pasadena, the Trojans could use the head-to-head argument in their favor.
With the Sugar Bowl being an early kickoff, USC took the field knowing Alabama had won 14-7. The door was open, but Michigan was ranked fifth in the nation themselves. They had no hope for the top spot, but were still aiming to get head coach Bo Schembecler his first victory in Pasadena.
The Rose Bowl matchup will be forever remembered by what happened on the goal line in the second quarter. USC was leading 10-3 and ready to add on, with the ball on the 3-yard line. White got the ball and went into the middle and leapt over the top, trying to make it all the way. He fumbled the ball at least a yard prior to breaking the plane. The play was ruled a touchdown. The officials conferred. The tiebreaking vote, keeping the touchdown was cast by none other than Gil Marchman.
USC won 17-10, with “The Phantom Touchdown” taking an infamous place in college football lore and Marchman’s role in providing huge calls in two straight big games to the Trojans drawing national attention. It might explain why the national championship vote went as it did.
The Trojans really should have been an easy vote for #1. USC and Alabama were the only teams under consideration, they had played head-to-head–in Birmingham–and USC won by double-digits.
But the combination of the shady circumstances surrounding USC’s victory and perhaps some voter guilt over Alabama having lost a close #1 vote the year before, the result was a split poll. It was less than what USC wanted, but it was still a national championship year, their last until Matt Leinardt and Reggie Bush showed up in 2003 and 2004.