The Road To The 1980 Rose Bowl: USC & Ohio State

The 1980 Rose Bowl was one of the great battles in the modern era for the “Grandaddy” of all college bowl games. Following the 1979 regular season, Ohio State was undefeated and in position to play for a national title. USC had only one tie on their resume and came into the game with outside hopes of their own. The Trojans and Buckeyes then proceeded to give the country an outstanding football game. Here’s a look back on the path each team took to reach Pasadena.

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USC had reached the Rose Bowl twice in the previous three years under fourth-year head coach John Robinson and won both times. 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 consenus 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.
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.
It was a new era at Ohio State. The Buckeyes had a relatively disappointing season in 1978 and it was followed by a disastrous ending in the Gator Bowl when legendary head coach Woody Hayes punched an opposing player and was fired. Earle Bruce was the new coach and had healing to do within the program, as well as get the tide turned against archrival Michigan, who had won the previous three games and Rose Bowl bids.
Bruce had a talented sophomore quarterback in Art Schlichter, who would finish in the top six of the Heisman voting three straight years and eventually be the second overall pick in the NFL draft before wrecking his career with a gambling problem. The offense was well-balanced, with Calvin Murray and Ricardo Volley sharing the rushing load and wide receiver Doug Donley catching 37 passes for 800 yards, the latter a high number by the standards of the time.
Ken Fritz was one of the best guards in the country and made All-American and in spite of all the turmoil, this was still Ohio State. But the pollsters didn’t see it that way and amazingly, given the lack of parity in college football at the time, the Buckeyes were unranked to start the year.
Ohio State opened with a 31-8 win over an average Syracuse team and quickly got back in the polls at #15. Then the Buckeyes went to mediocre Minnesota and fell behind 14-0. In what was perhaps a turning point for the program, Ohio State rallied and won 21-17. They rolled Washington State 45-29 and prepared for a nationally televised visit to UCLA.
The bad year the Bruins would have, finishing 5-6, was by no means apparent at this time, though they had lost to Houston already. UCLA was still ranked #17 and they bolted to a quick 10-0 lead. For the second time in the month of September, Ohio State faced a double-digit deficit.
Murray ripped off a 34-yard touchdown run and after three quarters the game was tied 10-10. UCLA got a field goal and drove deep into Buckeye territory before missing a chip shot field goal. Ohio State had the ball on their own 20 with 2:21 left. Schlichter calmly completed six straight passes, including the winning touchdown with 46 seconds The 17-13 win vaulted the Buckeyes to #8 in the rankings.
After a lackluster 16-7 win over Northwestern to open Big Ten play, Ohio State clicked into high gear. They blasted Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Illinois and Iowa by a combined score of 223-20 and moved up to #2 in the AP poll, trailing only unbeaten Alabama.
Now it was time to go to Ann Arbor. It hadn’t been a great year for the 13th-ranked Wolverines, but they had still only lost twice, to Purdue and Notre Dame. Ohio State needed the win just to get back to the Rose Bowl, to say nothing of the national title.
The Buckeye secondary allowed a deep touchdown pass to spectacular Wolverine wide receiver Anthony Carter and trailed 7-6 at halftime. In the third quarter, after being set up with good field position by a shanked punt, Schlichter threw a touchdown pass and even after the missed two-point conversion, they led 12-7.
Another deep ball allowed to Carter set up a Michigan touchdown and two-pointer and the game was 15-12. Ohio State turned to their special teams to win it. They went all-in for a punt block midway through the fourth quarter, exploiting what had been a Wolverine flaw throughout the year. Jim Laughlin blocked the punt, Todd Bell recovered it and scored. Ohio State won 18-15 and was returning to Pasadena.
Ohio State also moved to the top of the AP poll, while Alabama retained the top spot in the UPI poll. USC was ranked right behind the two 11-0 teams. The Crimson Tide would play Lou Holtz’s Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl early in the day. If the Tide lost, the Buckeyes and Trojans would take the field knowing they were playing for an undisputed national championship. And even if Alabama won, Ohio State would still play for a share of the crown.
The raw talent level of USC, their accomplishments of recent seasons and their relative homefield advantage led them to be a 7 ½ point favorite. And in spite of being eliminated by an Alabama victory in the early time slot, USC jumped out 10-0, with McDonald throwing a 53-yard touchdown pass. But Ohio State had come back all season long and they did again here, grinding out a 16-10 lead with five minutes left in the game.
White then did what he had done against Notre Dame and its take the football game over late. He tore off runs of 32 yards and 28 yards, and with 1:32 left he somersaulted into the end zone. USC won 17-16.
Surprisingly, neither team reached New Year’s Day in position to play for a national title any time in the near future. USC started to slip behind Washington & UCLA after Robinson left to coach the Los Angeles Rams and it took nearly a decade before the Trojans made another serious run. The Buckeyes reached the Rose Bowl following the 1984 season, but not in national championship position. It would be well into the late 1990s before Ohio State was a title contender.
The next actual national championships for each tradition-laden program wouldn’t come until a new century arrived, Ohio State in 2002 and USC in 2003-04. That wouldn’t have been guessed after the battle each team gave the country on New Year’s Day 1980.