Two traditional rivals came together on New Year’s Day for the 1979 Rose Bowl. USC arrived ranked #3 in the country and hoping that if the cards fell right they could be national champs. Michigan was ranked fifth, no hope at the top, but still aiming to get head coach Bo Schembecler his first victory in Pasadena. Let’s look back on how the Wolverines and Trojans navigated the 1978 college football regular season to get to this point.
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 after some slippage in 1977, expectations were still high and the Trojans were ranked ninth in the preseason polls.
Michigan was coming off two straight Rose Bowl defeats, but they appeared to be shifting the tide in their rivalry with Ohio State that always settled the Big Ten title in the 1970s. The Wolverines were ranked #6 to start the year.
The Trojans had a potential tailback in Charles White. Who gained over 1,800 yards and set the stage for his Heisman winning season a year later. Lynn Cain was the backup, 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.
The backfield for the Wolverines wasn’t quite as explosive, but they were good nonetheless. Harland Huckleby and Russell Davis combined to rush for nearly 1,500 yards and quarterback Rick Leach was versatile, running for 683 more himself.
Both quarterbacks were very efficient by the standards of the era. Leach threw 17 touchdowns against just six interceptions and Southern Cal lefty Paul McDonald had a 19/7 ratio, both exceptional numbers in this time period. The Trojans and Wolverines seemed on a collision course right from the start.
USC opened with wins over Texas Tech and then got to business at top-ranked Alabama. The previous year, the Trojans’ downhill spiral began with a home loss to the Tide and 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.
Michigan opened with a 31-0 rout of lowly Illinois and then traveled to Notre Dame. In 1978 this was a novelty for a lot of fans—the Wolverines and Irish had just renewed their rivalry and it began a long tradition of this game being an unofficial kickoff to a every new college football season.
This time around, Notre Dame was the defending national champs, and Leach started poorly, completing just 3/14 passes in the first half and Michigan trailed 14-7. Leach, who had been injured and did not practice during the week was warned by Schembecler that the leash was tight coming out of the locker room.
Michigan turned it around—an interception set up the tying touchdown, Leach threw a 40-yard touchdown pass and outplayed Joe Montana in the second half of a 28-14 win. They went to rout Duke and beat Arizona to complete the non-conference schedule.
Both teams would play Michigan State and the Spartans were good this season. They had the best receiver in the Big Ten, by the name of Kirk Gibson. USC hosted Sparty on the Friday night after the Alabama game, when a letdown was a real possibility. It didn’t happen and the Trojans won 30-9. Michigan wasn’t so fortunate a couple weeks later—on their homefield, they fell 24-15 to the Spartans.
The good news for Michigan was that Michigan State was on probation and barred from postseason play. It would prove to be a costly penalty for the folks in East Lansing.
On the same day the Wolverines were falling to their in-state rival, the Trojans also stubbed their toe, losing at Arizona State, an eventual nine-win team. In mid-October, USC was sitting at #7 in the polls and Michigan was #9.
USC 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.
Michigan crushed Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue to set up their own rivalry battle with Ohio State, the Rose Bowl again on the line.
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 salted the game and the Rose Bowl trip away.
Michigan was hit with a good dose of adversity in their game at Ohio State, even though this was not a vintage Buckeye team, and had already lost twice. The Wolverines led 7-3, but Leach pulled a hamstring. He stayed in the game, but with the quarterback lame and Huckleby already out with an injury, Schembecler’s team was up against it.
The defense and Leach came through—the Buckeyes never scored again and the quarterback turned in a gutty effort and led a 69-yard touchdown drive that wrapped up the 14-3 win. Michigan shared the Big Ten title with Michigan State, but because of the Spartans’ sanctions, it would be the Wolverines that got to go to Pasadena.
Michigan-Ohio State was an early game on November 25, and USC-Notre Dame was a late afternoon battle for folks on the East Coast and in the Midwest. 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 Paul Kaminski 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 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 Kaminski.
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.
Earlier in the day, #2 Alabama had beaten top-ranked Penn State, the nation’s only unbeaten team, in the Sugar Bowl. The championship debate revolved around USC and Alabama, and given the Trojans’ decisive head-to-head road win, it would seem very simple to just say that USC was #1.
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. Maybe it wasn’t what USC wanted or deserved, but it was still a national championship year.