The 1979 USC football program entered the season on a high. They had reached the Rose Bowl twice in the previous three years under fourth-year head coach John Robinson and won both times. In 1978, they were voted a share of the national championship, splitting the title with Alabama. Those same two teams, the Trojans and Crimson Tide opened the 1979 season atop the polls. USC was #1 with ‘Bama right behind them.
USC was known as “Tailback U” back in those days and Charles White was the latest heir. White rolled for over 2,000 yards rushing and won the Heisman Trophy.
There was a backup running back who didn’t turn out too badly either—Marcus Allen ran for 694 and finished eighth in the Pac-10 in rush yardage.
White and Allen were just two pieces of what was a loaded team. Brad Budde led the offensive line at guard and won the Lombardi Award. Dennis Johnson was an All-American linebacker. Future NFL players in linebacker Chip Banks and defensive backs Dennis Smith and Joey Browner were in the lineup. There was a future NFL head coach in defensive back Jeff Fisher.
And the fourth defensive back? Another guy who turned out well, in safety Ronnie Lott, merely the consensus choice as the best to ever play his position in the NFL.
Beyond all this, the Trojans were more balanced offensively than the Tailback U reputation gave them credit for. Paul McDonald, the lefty quarterback, threw for over 2,200 yards and had an excellent 18/6 TD-INT ratio. McDonald didn’t have the NFL future his teammates did, but he could at least exact a price if opposing defenses stacked the box.
It’s not surprising that USC, coming off a year where they were co-national champs, was ranked #1 in the preseason. Four of the first five games were against bad teams, and they rolled through Texas Tech, Oregon State, Minnesota and Washington State. The one reasonably difficult game came at LSU, ranked #20 at the time, though the Tigers would finish 6-5. USC got the win in Baton Rouge, 17-12.
October 13, against a mediocre Stanford team, produced the strange game that proved costly. USC jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first half and all looked good. Then the script flipped, the Cardinal scored three touchdowns and the game ended in a 21-21 tie. USC slipped to #4 in the polls, while Alabama continued to churn along and moved into the top spot.
A road trip to traditional rival Notre Dame was next. The game was tied 7-7 at the half, when White started to open up. He ran for two third-quarter touchdowns, but the Trojans still clung to a 21-14 lead. White kept coming, with two more touchdowns in the final quarter. With 591 yards of total offense, USC finally pulled away, 42-23.
Victories over Cal and Arizona, both respectable teams on their way to bowl games, by a combined 58-21 score follow and it set up a big game at 15th-ranked Washington. The Trojans 4-0-1 record in Pac-10 play led the conference, but the Huskies were right behind at 4-1. If USC won, they clinched the Rose Bowl. If Washington won, they needed only beat woeful Washington State the following week.
The game was good, but the Trojans survived it in Seattle, 24-17. The regular season ended with UCLA in the Coliseum (at the time, it was home to both schools). The Bruins were having an uncharacteristic poor year and USC made mincemeat of their rival, 49-14. They entered the Rose Bowl ranked third in the nation.
Ohio State had won the Big Ten, enjoying a comeback season under first-year head coach Earle Bruce. Not only that, they were 11-0 and held the top spot in the AP poll. Alabama had cruised to a perfect season of their own and led the UPI poll. The Trojans were #3.
The Tide was playing in the Sugar Bowl in the early afternoon time slot and their game would be over when the Rose Bowl started, or shortly thereafter. USC would know if they had a chance at the national title. They did not. The Tide won decisively over Arkansas.
In spite of Ohio State’s ranking, the oddsmakers priced USC as a 7.5 point favorite. The Trojans looked ready to prove the bookmakers right, as they built a 10-0 lead in the first half. Lefty quarterback Paul McDonald threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to strike the first blow. The Buckeyes came back, with a 53-yard scoring pass of their own from Art Schlicter.
The Ohio State signal-caller would one day be chosen second in the NFL draft, before being undone by gambling addiction. None of his personal problems were known today, as he looked to lead his team to a national championship. Three more field goals gave Ohio State a 16-10 lead as the clock approached five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
USC started on its own 17-yard line, needing to go the distance. Heisman winner Charles White showed why he was the latest in an assembly line of running backs that was preceded by Ricky Bell and succeeded by Marcus Allen. Today, the Trojan program produces quarterbacks, but back then it was running backs. White ripped off runs of 32 & 28 yards to quickly get his team in striking distance. With 1:32 left, he ended the drive by somersaulting into the end zone. Touchdown and ballgame, 17-16.
The Trojans finished the season #2 in the nation, concluding a two-year stretch where they and Alabama were clearly the class of college football. That’s what make the ensuing years so surprising. USC only got the Rose Bowl bid twice during the entire decade of the 1980s. In neither case were they remotely close to national championship contention. The proud program would not return to national prominence until Pete Carroll came to Los Angeles in the early 21st century.