Photo credit: Scott Wolf/Inside USC
Historically, USC has been more widely-known for its football tradition and UCLA for its basketball tradition, but there have been plenty of occasions where the teams met on the gridiron with much on the line.
One of those came on this day 45 years as the crosstown rivals met in a top-5 matchup and de facto Pac-8 title game. The Trojans came alive in the second half en route to an easy 24-14 victory.
Setting the Stage
A tie at Ohio State was the lone blemish on an otherwise perfect record for UCLA as it entered the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 20, 1976. UCLA was 9-0-1 and ranked No. 2 in the country. The Bruins had defeated USC the year prior and were hoping to take hope the “Victory Bell” for the second straight season.
USC opened the season with a loss to Missouri, but had won eight straight as it arrived for the annual rivalry matchup. At 8-1, first-year head coach John Robinson’s Trojans were ranked No. 3 in the country. Both teams were 6-0 in Pac-8 play and on the line, was an outright conference title.
UCLA entered the game with one of the nation’s most prolific offense, but throughout the day, it was stifled by the USC defense. For one half, the USC defense accounted for all the scoring.
Safety Dennis Thurman returned a UCLA fumble 47 yards for a touchdown as the Trojans went to the locker room with a 7-0 lead. In the second half, USC running back Ricky Bell got going and the rest of the offense followed.
The Trojans extended their lead to 10-0 on a third-quarter field goal and from there, it was sheer domination. Bell, who finished the day with 167 yards rushing, scored from a yard out for USC’s first offensive touchdown. Quarterback Vince Evans extended the lead to 24-0 by scrambling 36 yards for a score.
The fourth quarter was more than halfway gone when a UCLA offense that came in averaging more than 37 points per game finally found the end zone. Theotis Brown, whose fumble led to the game’s first points, broke up the shutout with a 9-yard touchdown run with less than four minutes remaining. The Bruins tried to make things interesting as they successfully executed the 2-point conversion and the ensuing onside kick.
With less than three minutes to go, UCLA again found the end zone as Jeff Dankworth scored on a 1-yard touchdown run. A failed 2-point try however, ended any hope UCLA may have had of salvaging a tie.
The victory gave USC its fourth win over UCLA and fourth Rose Bowl berth in five years. The Trojans would go on to beat Notre Dame and Michigan in the Rose Bowl to finish the year on an 11-game winning streak. They finished second in the polls behind only Pittsburgh.
UCLA’s season ended with a loss to Alabama in the Liberty Bowl. The Bruins finished 9-2-1 in what was also head coach Terry Donahue’s first season and 15th in the final polls.
The 1976 matchup between UCLA and USC wasn’t the first time that the teams met as top-5 teams. It also wasn’t the first meeting with a conference title on the line.
Still, the matchup remains among the most memorable in series history. It came on this day 45 years ago.