Larry Smith had come to the prestigious Southern Cal football program in 1987 and got off on the right foot, taking the Trojans to the Rose Bowl. USC was even better in 1988, getting another Rose Bowl bid and reaching the season finale with Notre Dame in position for a national title. But ’88 ended on a dour note, losing to the Irish and then losing in Pasadena for the second straight year. At USC, it wasn’t enough to simply to get to Rose Bowls, you had to win them. The 1989 USC football team got Smith over that hump.
USC was far and away the most talented team in a Pac-10 Conference that was mostly mediocre. Todd Marinovich was the league’s top quarterback. The freshman completed over 62 percent of his passes (a high percentage in this era of football), generated better than seven yards per attempt and his TD-INT ratio of 16/13 was tolerable for the era. His top target, John Jackson, caught 62 balls and was All-Conference.
The Trojans did their real work offensively on the ground and it started up front with All Pac-10 players in Mark Tucker and Brent Parkinson at guard, along with Brad Leggett at tackle. That line cleared the way for Ricky Ervins to lead the league in rushing with nearly 1,400 yards. Leroy Holt was a good second option in the backfield going over 600 yards. Ervins and Holt were also USC’s second and third most productive receivers.
But the defense was where the biggest stars were. Mark Carrier was the best defensive back in the country, intercepting seven passes from his safety spot and winning the Jim Thorpe Award. And Carrier wasn’t even the best player on the USC defense. That honor fell to linebacker Junior Seau, who won Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honors and went fifth overall in the following spring’s NFL draft. The rest of the defense was supplemented by All-Conference players in defensive tackle Dan Owens and linebacker Scott Ross.
National championship hopes were high again and USC was ranked #5 in the country. They had challenged themselves in the non-conference part of the schedule and September would be marked by visits from two Big Ten contenders.
Illinois came to the Los Angeles Coliseum for a prime-time kickoff on Labor Day. The Illini were ranked #22 in the preseason polls and would be even better than expected. They had Jeff George at quarterback and made a good run at a Rose Bowl bid of their own in ’89 before coming up short. In a crushing loss, USC blew a 13-0 lead when George authored a pair of fourth quarter touchdown drives to beat the Trojans 14-13.
The loss sent USC out of the national Top 10. They rebounded with a 66-10 beatdown of a bad Utah State team. Then Ohio State came in. This was a Buckeye team that was good and would win eight games, but they weren’t vintage. It showed here. USC pounded Ohio State 42-3 and re-established their momentum going into conference play.
A visit to Washington State opened the Pac-10 schedule and closed September. It was a game that would also raise more than a few hairs on the heads of Trojan backers. The Cougars had Steve Broussard, a talented running back who went for over 1,200 yards and they were a respectable, winning team. USC found themselves in a 17-10 hole, on their own 9-yard line and less than four minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
Marinovich led a long drive that reached the two-yard line with four seconds left. Then he flipped a scoring pass to Ervins, a two-point pass to Gary Wellman and USC escaped 18-17. The difference in the game was Ervins outrushing Broussard 138-25. And it makes Broussard’s ultimate selection as Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year even more mystifying. Ervins outrushed Broussard on the season and in their head-to-head game, both times by a lot. Even allowing that the Washington State back had considerably less support around him, how did this get overlooked?
In any case, having survived, USC settled in and beat a decent Washington team 24-16 and then dispatched lowly Cal 31-15. It was time for an October visit to South Bend.
Notre Dame had the best teams of the Lou Holtz era in 1988-89 and the Irish were ranked #1 in the country. USC was ready and jumped out to a 17-7 lead. Even when Notre Dame rallied to go ahead 28-24, the Trojans drove inside the 10-yard line late in the game. But the drive ended on downs and USC’s upset bid had just missed.
They were out of the national championship picture, but still very much in control of the Pac-10. A 19-10 home win over a poor Stanford team wasn’t inspiring, but it was likely a letdown after the Notre Dame battle. The Trojans got back in gear when they blasted subpar Oregon State 48-6.
That set up a visit to Arizona, Smith’s stomping grounds before he came to Los Angeles. The Trojans were two games up on the Wildcats with two to play and could wrap it all up right here.
USC did exactly that. They drove for a field goal on their first possession and led 10-0 by half. The defense was completely locked in against a one-dimensional Arizona offense that only produced 16 yards in the air. Ervins rolled up 151 yards on the ground and the Trojans won 24-3.
A season-ending 10-10 tie to UCLA was annoying, given the rivalry and that the Bruins were a bad team in 1989. It left the Trojans sitting at #12 in the polls. But at the end of the day, this season was about New Year’s Day in Pasadena.
Michigan was ranked #3 in the country, harboring outside hopes for a national championship and playing in what everyone knew would be the final game for legendary head coach Bo Schembecler. USC was hoping to avenge their loss to the Wolverines on this stage a year earlier.
It would be a football game very much worthy of the stakes. An early USC drive ended when Marinovich threw an interception. But Seau took the momentum back by blocking a punt. The Trojans took a 10-3 lead into halftime. The Wolverines got their offense going in the third quarter and the game went to the final period tied 10-10 and stayed that way as the clock neared the five-minute mark.
At midfield, facing fourth down and not willing to play for a tie, Schembecler called for a fake punt. It worked. But Michigan was flagged for holding and the veteran coach went ballistic, incurring another 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. USC got the ball on their own 25.
On a key 3rd-and-5 from the Michigan 44, Marinovich hit Jackson for twenty yards. Four players later, Ervins took it in. The game ended 17-10.
While most of the national focus was on Schembecler losing another Rose Bowl and getting his reaction to the holding call (it was very harsh), the story out west was that Larry Smith finally had a Rose Bowl win and that USC would finish the season in the Top 10, placing #8 in the final polls.
The disappointment for USC is more in retrospect. The breakthrough for Smith also proved to be his high point. He never returned the Rose Bowl and was let go after the 1992 season. The Trojans did not make it back to Pasadena until 1995.