by Paul R. Spitzzeri
They were known as the “Thundering Herd,” a behemoth of a college football team that stampeded and rampaged through the 1929 season with a 10-2 record and averaging 41 points per game while only allowing under 6 to its opponents.
The University of Southern California Trojans racked up blowout victories like the opening game 76-0 shellacking of U.C.L.A.; a 48-0 handcuffing on the road against Washington; and the dismantling of Occidental, Nevada and Idaho by scores of 64-0, 66-0, and 72-0.
As they entered the sixth week of the season and a match-up with their one of their two toughest Pacific Coast Conference (now the Pac-12) foes, the University of California Golden Bears, USC had yet to give up a single point, while scoring 214 points. Week five, on 26 October, against Stanford, was a pitched battle, though, and the Trojans emerged from the brutal road contest with a 7-0 win.
Still, the men of Troy were back at home in the Coliseum, where nearly 80,000 fans were on hand to watch the gridiron fight with Cal. Trojan Coach Howard Jones, though, did point out that the previous week’s scrape could have an effect on the game against the Bears, observing, “Nobody knows how much a tough game such as the Stanford battle takes out of a football team. In this case I am hoping it is not too much.”
As for Cal, this was an excellent team that was third in the league behind USC and Stanford in both the 1928 and 1929 campaigns. But, in ’28, the Bears tied both USC (a scoreless contest) and Stanford (the “Big Game” was 13-13) and then secured a berth in the 1929 Rose Bowl contest, the only bowl game in college football (now there seem to be far too many!).
In that match-up against Georgia Tech, the game was scoreless in the second quarter when Cal’s All-American center Roy Riegels scooped up a Yellow Jackets fumble, got turned around and tore off towards his own goal line. Although a teammate managed to stop him at the 1-yard line, the ensuing punt was blocked for a two-point touch-back. That proved to be the deciding factor in the 8-7 final score in Georgia Tech’s favor.
Riegels was back as captain of the 1929 squad and his team scored a touchdown on a 1-yard plunge over the goal line in the first quarter to take a 7-0 lead. In the second frame, his talented teammate Benny Lom, who stopped Riegels from reaching the end zone in his ill-fated fumble return in January and was the punter who was blocked for that touch-back, tore off an 85-yard run for a score and with the extra point kick going wide, the Bears went up 13-0. Then, when the Trojans punted deep in their own territory, Riegels blocked the kick and smothered the ball in the end zone for a safety. At the end of the first half, Cal was up 15-0.
The third quarter was scoreless, but time was running out for a comeback for the Trojans. At the end of the quarter, SC got the ball on a change of possession at Cal’s 40-yard line and then came the final frame. Fortunately for Troy, a pass was intercepted by the Bears, but fumbled and recovered by a Trojan. After a couple of nice runs, USC pushed the ball over the goal line for their only score. For the remainder of the game, Cal held fast and the final score was 15-7.
Trojan’s Coach Jones had a regular column in the Los Angeles Times and, on the 4th, and gave the Bears and their coach “Nibs” Price generous praise stating that Cal “won because they were on their toes and played alert football and took advantage of misplays by their opponents.” Lom was a standout, picking up 155 yards in the running game, while Riegels was singled out for his defensive efforts.
U.S.C. recovered from its loss to Cal by blindsiding Nevada at home the following week, but it had been looking past that opponent to its marquee match of the season, a nationally anticipated contest against Notre Dame at Soldier Field in Chicago.
That 16 November dust-up was a true nail-biter as the Fighting Irish fended off Troy 13-12 in what was a record attendance of nearly 113,000. Notre Dame, led by its legendary Coach Knute Rockne only allowed 38 points in its perfect nine-game season and USC was the only team to score in double figures against them.
The Trojans won its remaining three games, all at home, and then faced off against undefeated Pittsburgh in the 1930 Rose Bowl game, and administered a 47-14 beating of the Panthers. Because the bowl game were not factored into determining the national championship, Pitt emerged as the 1929 championship team. Some retroactive ranking systems, though, did declare USC the best team of that year.
One of the many sports-related artifacts in the Homestead’s collection is a program from the contest. It has a fun cartoon map of the Los Angeles area on its front cover, photo montages of players from both teams, the line-ups, and lots more, including some cool advertisements. Several images from the program are included with this post.
As for this year’s Troy squad, the 7-2 team, ranked 17th in the country, squares off against Arizona, which sports a 6-2 record and is ranked 22nd or 23rd in the nation (depending on the poll) on Saturday at the venerable Coliseum, still U.S.C.’s home field after all these decades. Most odds-makers peg the Trojans as 9-point favorites. The last two games of the year are against Colorado and cross-town rivals U.C.L.A. Will a Rose Bowl berth be in the cards this year for the men of Troy (now that a national championship is definitely not)?