The USC-UCLA football rivalry is the most storied in the West, and one of the most historic college football rivalries in the country. While it would be overdoing it to say 1988 was the high point, the 1988 USC-UCLA rivalry had plenty of color, some great storylines and added significant juice to what was a very good college football season.
September was a good month for football in the City of Angels, a town that had already seen the Lakers win the NBA title and the Dodgers were on their way to winning the World Series. USC and UCLA both had high expectations. The Trojans had beaten the Bruins out for the Rose Bowl bid a year ago and not only were both expected to again lead up the conference then known as the Pac-10, but national hopes were prevalent.
The quarterbacks at both schools were highly regarded seniors, with Rodney Peete for USC having an NFL career in front of him. UCLA was quarterbacked by Troy Aikman, whom you may have heard also had a pretty fair NFL career on the horizon.
Both teams had big non-conference tests, against Oklahoma and Nebraska respectively, each perennial national title contenders. The Pac-10 passed with flying colors. USC’s defense dominated the potent Oklahoma running game, holding them to 89 yards rushing, forcing six turnovers, jumping out to a 20-0 halftime lead and cruising to a 23-7 win.
UCLA’s dominance was even more startling, because Aikman’s offense hung 28 points on the Cornhuskers before the first quarter was out. The final was a deceptive 41-28, but it was never remotely a game.
Over the course of the season the Bruins would rise to #1 in the polls before a surprise loss to Washington State ended their national title hopes. But USC kept winning, moved up to #2 and another winner-take-all battle was set for November 19.
It looked like USC might join the championship parade in the city as they got set for their two season-ending games. If the Trojans could beat UCLA and then win at home against #1 Notre Dame, then USC would move into the top spot and control its championship destiny in the Rose Bowl.
Aikman would one day get the best of Peete many times when they played for the Cowboys and Eagle respectively, but November 19, 1988 was a day that belonged to USC. While Aikman had a good day, Peete had a running game with Aaron Emanuel. The result was that UCLA drove the field three times and settled for field goals. USC drove it three times and scored touchdowns. The 21-9 lead set the tone and USC won it 31-22.
Peete’s Trojans were favorites to beat Notre Dame and then go on and beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl, but they just didn’t have the muscle. The Irish whipped them up front, getting a long option run by quarterback Tony Rice for a 65-yard scoring play and linebacker Frank Stams sacked Peete three times and forced a fumble that set up a score.
Trailing 14-7 and still with a chance to get back into it, Peete threw an interception that was returned 64 yards for a score. Though USC outgained Notre Dame, the turnovers did them in and the final was 27-10.
The Rose Bowl provided similar disappointment as a halftime lead disappeared against a Michigan offensive front that took over the second half. The Wolverines led 15-14 late and put the game away on fourth-and-goal from the one when USC couldn’t stop Leroy Hoard from willing his way into the end zone as part of a huge second half. It was a tough ending for the Trojans, but still a good year.
UCLA ended on an up note in the Cotton Bowl, where Aikman played mistake-free football and let his defense deliver a 17-3 win over Arkansas. It was a fitting college end for Aikman, playing the game in Dallas where he would be on his way too in a few short months.